After peering at rat skin cells through microscopes for four months, a small team of scientists at Vellore's Centre for Stem Cell Research, Christian Medical College, finally had a eureka moment. The spindle-shaped skin cells had changed to round cells. These had formed colonies. In other words, normal adult cells had been tweaked to behave like embryonic stem cells.
But scientists know that excitement over stem cell research needs to be tempered with caution. This, even as US President Barack Obama said he would lift restrictions on such research there, a development hailed by Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss as causing "much excitement....We have not banned (embryonic stem cell) research in India and foresee many institutes beginning new collaborative projects."
But there are huge problems between theory and therapy, says Dr Rama Shanker Varma, associate professor of the Stem Cell and Molecular Biology Lab, IIT, Madras. "The cells cannot be taken from the laboratory to the patient's bedside immediately, even if it has proved successful in animals," he says.
Just last month, a 17-year-old Israeli boy, whose brain was injected with foetal stem cells, developed tumours in the spine. "It's worrying. Here we don't have long-term monitoring and follow-up of patients, leave alone those undergoing stem cell therapy. We need to be careful about what we're doing and on whom," says Japan-based Dr Samuel J K Abraham, medical director of Nichi-in for Regenerative Medicine, an Indo-Japanese institute for stem cell research and therapy.
Dr Alok Srivastava, who heads the CMC Centre for Stem Cell Research agrees. "We should not rush to use iPS cells (Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells," he says. iPS cells, which were first produced in 2006 from mouse cells and from human cells later, are an important advancement in this research as they potentially have therapeutic uses, without the controversial use of embryos.
But Srivastava says people expect iPS cells to cure them of all sorts of ailments. "It could be years before that happens; safety should be ensured too," he says.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the lead body with regard to biomedical research, offers some guidelines on stem cell research and therapy. But they aren't exhaustive, enabling several hospitals to advertise stem cell therapy as a miracle cure for all ills. The government is aware of this. "People are made to believe that stem cell therapy is a cure-all remedy. It's a dangerous trend, particularly in the absence of legislation or a regulatory body," admits Ramadoss.
At present, ICMR and the department of biotechnology, independently approve and finance clinical stem cell research. But senior officials admit there has been unethical use of this therapy in India. They include Dr Vasantha Muthuswamy, ICMR's senior deputy director-general and scientists such as Dr P M Bhargava, ex-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.
The guidelines are about to be put forward for public debate. It's an urgent matter for India. Thriving and unregulated in-vitro fertilisation clinics are offering spare blastocysts for stem cell research. A blastocyst is the cell mass initially formed when human eggs are fertilised and a source of stem cells.