Heart grown in lab to beat in body
CHENNAI: Watching tiny cells grow into a human organ in a lab is no longer in the realm of science fiction. Scientists across the globe have managed to grow tissues and organs, and regenerative medicine is now one of the most promising fields in medical science. India is catching up and closer home, researchers at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M ) have announced that a group of rats will soon receive heart or liver cells grown in their labs.
Patches of these cells will be surgically placed in rats at the Central Drug Research Laboratory, Lucknow. "It will open new avenues of treatment for humans," said Rama S Verma, professor, department of biotechnology, IIT-M. "It may delay or replace organ transplant."
IIT-M programmed stem cells derived from cord blood and bone marrow to grow into liver cells. Its scientists grew these cells in a special polymer gel. "They matched the qualities of liver cells. In theory, these cells can reverse or delay organ damage in people with early stages of liver failure. If animal trials succeed, we will start trial in humans," Verma said. Simultaneously, they would do animal research using heart cells.
Attempts to reverse organ failure with a patient's own cells are being made in many countries. Though it is too early to say if regenerative medicine will do away with organ transplant, doctors said some clinical trials had shown positive results. Sankara Nethralaya, Arvind Eye Hospital and LV Prasad Eye Institute have used stem cells to reverse blindness. Opthalmologists use limbus stem cells in patient's eyes to repair the epithelial layer of cornea. "We avoid corneal transplant in at least 50% of the cases," said Dr S Krishnakumar of Vision Research Institute at Sankara Nethralaya.
Doctors abroad have grown urethras, bladders, ear and bones from stem cells. Scientists are working with doctors to expand their applications to overcome the two disadvantages in organ transplants — use of immunosuppressants and organ rejection. "To prevent patients' immune systems from fighting the donor organ, we put them on drugs that suppress the immune system. Sometimes, despite medicines organs get rejected. When we use the patient's own cells, chances of rejection are minimal. Immunosuppressant drugs can be avoided," said liver transplant surgeon Dr Mohamed Rela, who works with Global Hospitals.
His hospital plans to set up an animal lab to start a series of experiments on regenerative medicine. "From experience we know that stem cells are more likely to work in patients with acute liver failure because there is no structural damage to the organ. There is no ongoing threat to new cells. But transplant might be the only option for patients with chronic liver failure caused by hepatitis or alcoholism," he said.
To train doctors, the state medical university has collaborated with Nichi-In Centre for Regenerative Medicine to offer courses in regenerative medicine.
Senior surgical gastroenterologist Dr R Surendran, who started a stem cell lab at the Government Stanley Medical College, said, "It's the future of medicine. If we don't update ourselves, we will be left behind."