| GLOBAL RACE: File picture of a researcher removing stem cell cultures from a freezer at a California institute
New Delhi, July 13: In its efforts to usher regenerative medicine in India, Reliance Life Sciences (RLS) has claimed a lead in the race to produce stem cells to repair damaged brains and hearts.
Stem cells are progenitor cells that lack any identity themselves, but have the ability to transform into specific cells such as blood, brain, heart, liver, or pancreatic cells. They may be extracted from bone marrow, embryos, or placental cord blood collected minutes after the placenta is separated following a baby’s birth.
Patent applications filed by the Mumbai-based RLS in the US claim improved techniques to harvest stem cells from embryonic and placental cord blood cells to be used to treat brain disorders or replace heart muscle damaged by heart attacks.
A senior RLS official said the applications were part of an effort “to build a strong patent portfolio” covering various applications of stem cells, but declined to reveal details of the research under way at its cell biology laboratory in Mumbai.
Scientists are pursuing stem cell therapy in the hope that it will allow them to repair damaged organs by transplanting new cells obtained from stem cells. Most stem cell therapy today is based on cells extracted from blood or bone marrow.
Researchers have said that treatment with embryonic stem cells is still many years away.
“The big questions in stem cell therapy are how long will cells survive and whether they will make the right connections to the tissues where they are implanted,” said Dr Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath, director of the National Brain Research Centre in Gurgaon. “No one knows the answers yet.”
In one patent application, RLS has claimed an improved method to produce a set of brain cells, or neurons, from embryonic stem cells. These neurons may help replace brain cells in patients with stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease, the application said.
The technique developed by RLS is said to produce 60 per cent of a special type of neurons, a proportion higher than what other research groups have achieved.
The RLS has also filed patent applications on an improved technique to produce a group of cells called human mesenchymal stem cells from placental cord blood. Mesenchymal stem cells have the potential to develop into heart muscle cells.
The mesenchymal stem cells may be used to reconstruct damaged heart muscles in patients who have had multiple heart attacks that led to loss of some heart muscle, the patent application has said. Researchers hope that when implanted into damaged heart muscle, these cells will grow into new muscle and improve heart function.
The Indian Council of Medical Research has estimated that some 50 million patients with heart disease, 5 million with Parkinson’s disease and 5 million with Alzheimer’s disease in India are “potential beneficiaries” of stem cell therapy.
The RLS is among at least a dozen public and private institutions across India engaged in stem cell research. Some hospitals have also launched trials on patients using stem cells derived from bone marrow.
“Embryonic stem cell research is promising and exciting, but we need to move cautiously,” said Vijayalakshmi.
During the late 1980s, neurosurgeons in Europe and the US had tried to treat Parkinson’s disease with brain tissues from aborted foetuses. “The experiments failed ' it just didn’t work. The cells didn’t survive,” she said.