Until now, menstrual blood has typically been discarded as unsanitary waste. Few are aware that the blood shed during women’s menstrual cycles contains millions of stem cells, which can be easily collected, processed and preserved and may one day serve as a potential source for promising regenerative therapies to treat heart disease, diabetes, neurological disorders like spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, to name a few.
The above mentioned scenario is not a revolutionary concept in regenerative medicine described in a sci-fi book. The service is already available in the US from Cryo-Cell International for more than a year now, promoted under the brand name of C’elle. Buoyed by the response received in the US market, LifeCell International, a stem cell bank major, is partnering Cryo-Cell to bring this concept to India.
Starting next month, LifeCell Femme, as the service is called, will be made available for all women who still experience menstruation cycles. “Women can take control of their future health by banking their menstrual blood stem cells, while they are in optimal health and have access to their menstrual stem cells,” says Mayur Abhaya, president and executive-director, LifeCell International. The company plans to launch this service in select metros and later take it to other metros and mini-metros.
Medical fraternity feels such innovative ways to harvest stem cells should be put to use in India. It is only a matter of time before similar services would be launched by other stem cell technology companies in India.
Anoop Misra, director and head, department of diabetes and metabolic diseases, Fortis Group of Hospitals says, “By using such a service, women could utilise their own stem cells for any potential stem cell treatment. However, first, effectiveness in harvesting stems cells and also cost-effectiveness should be considered. Menstrual blood may consist of degenerated cells as well, and yield of stem cells may not be appropriate.
Therefore, only scientists with proven track record and with data, which clearly shows benefit, should be involved in such a venture.”
Menstrual stem cells—which come from the womb lining shed during a woman’s period—have the advantage of being easily harvested in a painless, non-invasive manner as compared to some other stem cell sources such as bone marrow. And their use gets round the ethics of using stem cells taken from embryos. The cost of harvesting, processing and storing menstrual blood will be significantly lower, than what is charged for preserving cord blood cells—typically around Rs 35,000, though easy monthly installments have somewhat popularised it among the common man.
Stem cells are the basic building blocks of every other cell in the body. While all other cells have a specific function—stem cells are ‘blank.’ They have the amazing ability to take on the function of any cell in the body when surrounded by that type of cell. For example, if a stem cell is introduced to the brain, it will take on the job of a brain cell.
Characteristically, stem cells have a high capacity for self-renewal. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialised function— such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell or a nerve cell.
Given the right environment, stem cells can give rise to a number of tissues that constitute the different organs. Also serving as a kind of repair system for the body, stem cells can divide repeatedly and then differentiate and replenish cells within the body. These unique characteristics are the reason why stem cells are considered a breakthrough in regenerative medicine. They have the potential for providing cells and tissues to treat various debilitating, life-threatening diseases.
“It is anticipated that virtually any tissue many be amenable to cellular therapy and to understand the safety and efficacy of the same, several hundred clinical trials are underway for a whole host of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson’s disease, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and many others,” informs a LifeCell International official.
Buzz around the menstrual blood stems from the fact that this contains extremely large number of stem cells and several thousand fold high concentration of stem cell growth factors. These menstrual stem cells are unique because they have many properties and characteristics similar to both bone marrow and embryonic stem cells.
“Because of these properties, research has shown that these menstrual cells multiply rapidly and can also form other types of specialised cells, including those of the heart, nerve, bone, cartilage and fat and possibly others. This demonstrates a great promise for future use in clinical regenerative medical therapies,” says Abhaya.
As for the potential users, the fact that menstrual stem cells can be easily harvested in an affordable, painless and non-invasive manner remains its unique USP.