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Celling the Elixir of life

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Stem Cell therapy is being touted as the answer to many chronic ailments. But even as research is being done, many are already benefitting from it.

In the small town of Nagasamudra, just a few miles away from Jog Falls in Karnataka, S B Ramesh, all of 28 years, had built a home with his wife, son and a cable operating business, and dreamt of a fast-paced expansion of his business. Instead, what followed was a nightmare that left him bedridden, numb and disheartened.

Today, as he tells me his story over the phone, he expresses the joy he feels at being able to even hold the phone in his own hand — a miracle that was achieved by doctors at the Manipal Hospital through stem cell therapy.

Two years ago a highway accident injured Ramesh’s spinal cord to an extent that he couldn’t lift a finger, leave alone hold a remote or phone, had lost all sensation in his legs, hands and face and did not even know when he would pass urine. When surgery and operations failed to show results, doctors suggested bone marrow stem cell therapy, an opportunity Ramesh grabbed. Two injections and 15 months later Ramesh had finally begun feeling and could stand up with support. In March 2007, the third stem cell injection was administered to Ramesh and today, two months later, he can feel his spine, knows when he wants to pass urine, can use a mobile phone and a remote control and drink water on his own. “It has given me hope and confidence. I can sit on my own now, using my hands to move my legs,” he says. As he talks about it, his voice is laced with emotions, almost gratitude for the therapy itself.

India can become a hub for stem cell research and application partly because the Church in Western countries perceives using embryos to extract stem cells as murder. This, in conjunction with lax regulations on such research, has given India an obvious edge.

Dr Satish Totey, chief scientific officer, Stem Peutics Research and secretary of the Stem Cell Research Forum, talks of a growing consensus among policy analysts and scientists on India playing a key role in the scientific, clinical and commercial development of stem cell research in the near future.

Stem cells can be split into three broad categories — embryonic stem cells derived from blastocysts; adult stem cells found in the bone marrow, Peripheral blood, tissues and cord blood stem cells found in the umbilical cord. While in developing embryos, the cells differentiate into all of the specialised embryonic tissues, adult stem cells can only work on repairing and replenishing specialised cells.

So, what’s the big fuss about stem cells anyway? Nothing really, except that these building blocks could treat problems such as heart diseases, limb Ischemia, spinal cord injury, stroke, Multiple Sclerosis, fractures, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and maybe even terminal diseases. Stem cell therapy works on the concept that these cells can develop into mature, specialised cells and tissues of the body such as nerve cells, muscle cells, liver cells and blood cells.

More than 300 patients suffering from corneal surface disorders have been treated using limbal stem cells at the LV Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad with a 70 per cent success rate.

Meanwhile, a four-month-old baby with improper heart muscle contraction and no hope for survival is steadily recovering after doctors at the Frontier Lifeline Hospital, Chennai, drew stem cells from the baby’s blood and injected them into the heart last year. The baby is one of 15 patients who were given this therapy. Ten patients have shown good recovery and from a stage when they would feel breathless even lying in bed, they are now able to walk. The hospital is among the few in India that offer hope to patients who are at the last stage of a heart disease and have no treatment options available. “When the patient is on the verge of a heart failure, we treat him with stem cell therapy using stem cells from his own blood to avoid an immune reaction,” says Dr Sanjay Cherian, director of the hospital.

Despite its obvious miraculous properties, stem cell therapy is often applauded, criticised and sometimes even misused. Many doctors in the West condemn the use of stem cells for therapy by countries like India, China and Russia. Dr John Steeves, a professor at the University of British Columbia, warns that its therapeutic application could be disastrous because scientists still can’t control stem cells. Adds Dr T R Raju, head, neurophysiology department at NIMHANS, “In India, there is desperate demand from patients for the therapy. But medical ethics demand these be thoroughly tested on animals first.”

With more than 500 hospitals in China, Latin America, Eastern Europe and India performing cutting- edge stem cell procedures, there is no turning back. As Totey puts it, “Patients have heard the warnings from critics and seen the thousands of success stories. With no other hope in sight, they are willing to ignore the critics and take the chance.” True. In Ramesh’s words, “The therapy has enabled me to work again, and at work, sometimes, I can forget about my painful life.” And that’s what healing should be all about.

Radhieka Pandeya / New Delhi

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