Stem cell regulations shouldn’t stifle research: Indian experts

April 21st, 2011 - 10:33 am ICT by IANS  

Bhubaneswar, April 21 (IANS) India is mulling measures to regulate research in the therapeutic use of human embryonic stem cells - a field that offers promise for curing brain, nerve and spinal cord diseases, among others. But experts say the regulations should not be very harsh or affect ongoing work in the field.

A 12-member national apex committee set up last year by the union health ministry to oversee and monitor the activities, especially to check misuse of stem cells, held its first meeting at the end of last year but has not got too far in its work.

“It was just the beginning. We are discussing all the issues and chalking out our future plans,” a member of the committee, who did not want to be identified, told IANS, adding the panel may take several months to come out with something concrete.

The panel led by Alok Srivastava, a haematologist at the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, was formed a few years after the government published guidelines on stem cell research in 2007. The guidelines, however, have no power to curb stem cell therapy and researches conducted allegedly without proper procedures.

While experts also feel there have to be rules in place to prevent misuse of stem cells, some of them suggest regulations should not be harsh if India wants growth in the area.

“If the old guidelines are enforced in its present form, then many experts might have to conduct clinical trials, including pre-clinical (on animals) again, to test the efficacy of a therapy, which has been used for treating hundreds of patients,” an expert said.

Geeta Shroff, a stem cell expert who claimed to have successfully provided a cure to over 800 patients at her Nu Tech Mediworld at Delhi, told IANS she does not oppose the proposed regulations.

“But they shouldn’t curb research. The law has to be such that the work does not stop,” she said.

Shroff said she has been treating hundreds of patients, including many from abroad, with stem cell therapy for conditions like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, eye disorders, cardiac conditions, spinal injuries and post-stroke conditions over the past nine years.

“Not one has reported any side effects,” she said. Shroff said 30 percent of her patients are physicians or have family members who are highly educated medical professionals.

Stem cell research has become a controversial topic in the past few years across the world with some favouring its use of embryonic stem cell and others opposing it on moral and ethical grounds.

However, its exponents have not faced any problem in India, although several countries do not allow the manipulation or destruction of human embryos.

Satish Totey, secretary of the Stem Cell Research Forum of India (SCRFI), said the guidelines published in 2007 are nothing and the country needs tighter regulations.

Embryonic stem cells are cells derived from an early stage of an unborn baby that is less developed than a foetus, and the treatment involves the replacement of a layer of degenerated cells with new cells created using embryonic stem cells.

The therapy offer promises for the people suffering from neurological diseases - disorders affecting the brain, spinal cord and nerves. The diseases affect about one billon people and kill an estimated 6.8 million every year in the world.

Stem cells offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat a myriad of diseases, conditions and disabilities, including Parkinson’s disease, sclerosis, spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, eye disorders and arthritis.

(Jatindra Dash can be contacted at jatindra.d@ians.in)

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