By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: US President Barack Obama is now the new icon of change for scientists around the world. His decision to lift ban on federal funding for research involving embryonic stem cells has opened up new frontiers for biologists to explore. Though Obama's decision will not bring in immediate medical benefits to patients suffering from genetic and non-genetic diseases, scientists see in it a new hope for cure, in near future, for a plethora of health problems including AIDS.
And back home in India, biologists and researchers feel that the US administration's move will stir up the policy-makers here to hasten with the much-awaited legislation on stem cell research. Two years have passed since the Indian Council of Medical Research announced the new draft guidelines on stem cell research. The Central government has been sitting on the guidelines without transforming them into a formal legislation to boost stem cell research in the country.
"It's a welcome decision," says Dr Jyotsna Dhawan of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology. "In India clinical trials on stem cells are already approved. But we have not reached the stage where we can use the research for therapeutic purposes," she adds. Dr Jyotsna is one of the three members from Hyderabad on the ICMR expert panel that drafted the stem cell research guidelines.
Once India gets its own legislation on stem cells research, hospitals can use both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells for medical treatment. However, human cloning will not be permitted in the country. Stem cells are considered to have the ability to divide without limits and to give rise to daughter cells that can form specialised cells. The cells categorised as totipotent have the unlimited ability to differentiate into any tissue including extra-embryonic membranes and all embryonic tissues and organs.
"Lakhs of patients suffering from kidney, liver, heart, blood, pancreas, brain and blood problems will stand to benefit once Parliament passes the proposed Bill on stem cell therapy. Only clinical trials are allowed in the country and it's high time the Indian government followed the Barack Obama administration," argues Dr MN Khaja, who is involved in liver stem cell research.
In the absence of legislation, only a few research centres, who have secured special permission from ICMR, Department of Science and Technology and Department of Biotechnology, are allowed to conduct research on stem cells in laboratories. When it comes to application of the technology to human subjects for treatment purposes, it has been a strict "no" thus far. The only exception is the bone marrow transplantation.
Research on stem cells involves two types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. As far as research on adult stem cells are concerned, there's no restriction and researchers have already developed artificial cornea in petri dish. The trouble is with the embryonic stem cell research.
As eminent liver scientist-physician Dr CM Habibullah, who is also a member of the ICMR committee, points out the proposed legislation would permit research on embryonic stem cells. "But to do this, the consent of the donor should be obtained. We have also made a provision that cord blood banks should be registered with the Drug Controller-General of India".
Scientists and doctors are elated over the developments. But many fear that the nascent research will be misused by unscrupulous elements, particularly when it comes to human embryos, as was done in the case of genetically modified crops. Embryonic stem cell research and therapy is a promising medical industry in the country which will boost medical tourism in the next few years. This opens the doors for commercialisation.
Dr RVG Menon, veteran scientist, expresses concern over the possible commercialisation of stem cell research. "There are fears that immature technologies may be marketed for the sake of profit. This means that we would have no idea of the possible after-effects. They would not have been studied properly. We are seeing such unexpected after-effects in GM crops now".
Agrees infertility expert Dr Roya Rozati, stem cell research raises several ethical and social issues such as destruction of human embryos to create human embryonic stem cell lines.
"Ethical and social concerns should be given prime importance in this area of research. There should be controls, but they should come from within the scientific community itself. This will make stem cell research beneficial to humanity."
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