Eliminating the need for costly insulin injections for diabetics, regenerating heart muscle after it fails, and improving resistance to disease by engineering immune cells top a list of 10 areas developing countries should focus their medical research on, say experts from the North and South.
“Developing countries could potentially benefit from advances in regenerative medicine to address the epidemic of non-communicable disease and other pressing health needs,” says a study by the University of Toronto published recently in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine.
Regenerative medicine involves the repair, replacement or regeneration of cells, tissues or organs impaired by congenital defects, disease, trauma and other causes. It moves beyond traditional transplant and replacement therapies to include the use of stem cells, soluble molecules, genetic engineering, tissue engineering and advanced cell therapy.
First on the list of hoped-for new technologies in the study was “novel methods of insulin replacement and pancreatic islet cell regeneration for diabetes”. Such methods include biotechnology and stem cell therapies.
Diabetes is a huge health care burden for developing countries and insulin is expensive, so regenerative medical breakthroughs could dramatically reduce that burden. That is why the international panel of experts made it their first choice, said co-author Heather Greenwood of the Canadian Programme on Genomics and Global Health.
Health biotechnology and regenerative medicine appear expensive at first but can end up being cheaper in the long run,” he noted. “The more R & D developing countries do themselves, the more affordable these technologies will be.”
And that is starting to happen, especially in India and China, he said.
India’s non-profit L.V. Prasad Eye Institute has used adult stem cell therapy to repair the corneas of over 260 blind patients, while the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in the province of Hyperabad is trying to grow pancreatic beta cells to treat diabetes.
Still, not everyone is convinced that the answer lies in new technologies. “My guess is regenerative medical technologies would not be the first choice to solve these problems,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a global issues think tank in Washington.