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Wonder Cells, Made in India

Diagram of stem cell division and differentiation.Image via Wikipedia

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Indian scientists have succeeded in producing stem cells, opening up the possibility of cost-effective treatment for some serious medical conditions.

India is finally on the international stem cell map. The country, known so far in this regard for a few unscrupulous private clinics doling out untested “stem cell-based” miracle therapies, has finally something to offer with two independent research groups in Bangalore and Mumbai harvesting stem cells from human embryos.

While researchers at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore have derived quality embryonic stem cells from discarded human embryos, the Mumbai team led by Deepa Bhartiya of the National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health (NIRRH) managed to do it from normal embryos. Both groups developed two stem cell lines each, taking the total number of embryonic stem cell lines reported from India to five. About three years ago, the Mumbai-based Reliance Life Science Private Ltd claimed it developed the country’s first stem cell line, but very little is known about the firm’s progress in the field.

Both the papers are set to appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Stem Cells and Development.

The development would mean that scientists in India will now have indigenous stem cells for research and for developing therapies. Apart from aiding research on how they are formed and differentiate into different cell types, stem cells hold the promise of treatment for some of the most serious medical conditions, including cancers and birth defects.

Independent experts believe it is a significant step as a demonstration of India’s capability in the stem cell field, but also that it is too early to talk about potential clinical applications. “The proof of the pudding lies in its eating,” says Mitradas Panicker, a biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

Embryonic stem cells, which can be grown into a dazzling array of cell types that make a human being, are generally derived from healthy but surplus embryos obtained from donors attending fertility clinics for treatment. The sheer fact that healthy embryos are used for such research and therapeutic purposes has invited a lot of criticism from ethics watchers.

But ethical issues can now be avoided. Led by Dr Maneesha Inamdar, the JNCASR researchers have harvested potent embryonic stem cells from low-quality human embryos thrown away by fertility clinics. The achievement opens up a whole new resource for embryos that can be used in stem cell research.

“During any in vitro fertilisation, 6 to 12 embryos are produced. Out of these, only one or two are used. While the good embryos are frozen and preserved for future use, those which are slow to develop or are defective are discarded,” says Inamdar. “These embryos can be used for deriving embryonic stem cells.” According to her, very few groups in the world have reported such use for discarded embryos. The embryos were obtained from a local fertility clinic, the Bangalore Assisted Conception Centre.

On the other hand, the NIRRH team used both healthy and “slow growing” surplus embryos procured with the informed consent of patients for developing stem cells. Doctors from various fertility clinics including Indira Hinduja, an IVF expert, were part of the group.

The JNCASR team tested the potency of the stem cells they derived by making them differentiate into heart muscle cells, says Inamdar. The cardiac cells continue to show rhythmic contractions and have survived for more than two months in a culture medium. Besides, this process of differentiating stem cells into human heart muscle cells is very cost effective, as it does not require any expensive growth factors. More importantly, such muscle cells can be grown in large numbers and frozen for future use.

Sources: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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