By Richa Sharma

Like all parents, Arvind Tripathi, a schoolteacher in India’s pink city of Jaipur, wants to gift his unborn child a disease-free future. As India walks the path of cutting-edge technology in healthcare, the once unthinkable is actually within grasp and Tripathi is planning to achieve his dream by banking his baby’s stem cells.

He will soon join the ranks of 30,000 other parents in India who have

banked the umbilical cord blood cells of their babies to give them a way to fight

blood, genetic and immune system diseases for the rest of their lives.

From 2001, when the first stem cell bank in India was launched in the

southern city of Chennai by Reliance Life Sciences, now part of the

Reliance Group led by Mukesh Ambani, to now, benefits of the technology have

percolated down to thousands of people.

Stem cells have been labelled the natural repair kit of the human body.

The cells, collected from the umbilical cord blood at the time of birth, are

the building blocks of our blood and immune systems and have the potential to

grow into any other type of cells. They form the white cells that fight

infection, red cells that carry oxygen and platelets that promote healing.

Stem cells present in bone marrow and umbilical cord can generate new

cells throughout our lives. Umbilical cord blood stem cells have been used over

the years in an increasing number of treatments including leukaemia,

malignant tumours, blood disorders and red cell disorders.

In the last few years, more than 10,000 patients in over 150 countries

have been treated with cord blood stem cell transplants. Currently, research in

the use of stem cells to treat more than 85 diseases is being undertaken.

India is catching up fast.

Though there are no estimates of the size of the business, the stem cell

banking business is growing rapidly with international companies like

Cryo-Save, Cryo-Cell and Cryobank opening their branches in various parts

of the country.

“With a high birth rate (43 million births a year), India holds a huge

market for the stem cell banking business. Though in a nascent stage,

awareness about umbilical cord blood stem cell banking is catching up fast

in India,” Mayur Abhaya, president and executive director of LifeCell

International told IANS.

“To make people more aware about the benefits, the company has tied up

with several gynaecologist associations in the country. We are also teaming up

with hospitals in the country to reach out to expecting mothers and

counsel them about the benefits of storing cord blood,” Abhaya said.

He estimates that the business is growing at a steady pace of 25 to 30

percent per annum.

Realising the huge potential in stem cells banking business in India,

European company Cryo-Save launched its operations in India last

December with an investment of Rs.10 million (approx $206,000).

Stem cell banking kits — which include harvesting, processing and storage

of cord blood — range from about $300 to about $15,000 depending upon the

kind of facilities being offered.

Though not extravagantly priced, the facility is out of reach for many

Indians.

To make it affordable to the average salaried person, companies are

offering EMI (equated monthly instalments) payment plans.

“A couple interested in storing stem cells may contact the company two

months before scheduled delivery. Our counsellors will approach them and

guide them about the process. After 21 years, we will charge a minimal

annual fee to store it for a lifetime,” explained V.R. Chandramouli,

managing director of Cryo-Save, India.

Families that cannot raise the money at the time of birth can bank the

cord blood in a public bank and then arrange for it to be transferred for

exclusive use.

Public stem cell banks operate like regular blood banks. It doesn’t cost

anything to donate stem cells to a public bank and the ownership of the

cells doesn’t belong to the donor. The unknown recipient pays for the stem

cells when he finds suitable matching stem cells.

“In the case of a private stem cell bank, the client holds the right to

retrieve or access the stem cells for his own use or by his family members

for which purpose there is a periodic or one-time payment which he needs

to make. These stem cells cannot be sold or transferred to third parties,”

Abhaya said.

As the stem cell revolution gains strength in India, researchers in the

country are also marching ahead for the therapy that has the potential to

radically change the treatment of human disease.

The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in the southern city of

Hyderabad is collaborating with the Deccan Medical College for liver stem

cell research and with the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute for growing cornea

cells.

The All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi is

developing treatments using bone marrow cells for muscular dystrophy,

spinal cord injury, cerebral dysplasia, heart tissue damage, diabetes and motor

neuron disease.

The Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC) in the western Indian city of Pune

has set up one of the biggest stem cell research centres in Asia.

With stem cell therapy clearly emerging as the treatment for the future,

India has joined the rest of the world in banking on the best

healthcare options for