Cos take to stem cell banking to add teeth to fight against ailments

Written by MG Arun | Mumbai | Updated: Mar 31 2012, 06:15am hrs
Pramod Hari Lele, 63, chief executive of city-based PD Hinduja Hospital, recently decided to gift a little more than just chocolates and toys to his grand-daughter Dipti as she turned six. He invested R1 lakh to bank her dental stem cells regenerative cells extracted and stored from her milk teeth as they fall. If required, and Lele hopes it never would be, they can be used to cure her of ailments in future.

I read about stem cells and have interacted with experts on the subject, says Lele, a healthcare professional for over three decades now. I wanted to gift something that would be a boon for my granddaughter in future.

Lele banked Dipti's stem cells with Stemade Biotech, India's first dental stem cell bank promoted by Deepak Ghaisas, former chief executive of IT services company i-Flex Solutions (now Oracle Financial Services Software). I plan to do the same with my younger grand-daughter too, he adds.

In India, over 1.5 lakh people have banked their stem cells, also extracted from umbilical cord during child birth and from the bone marrow, and the sector is growing at 20%. This is small compared to Singapore where 80,000 people in a population of just four million have banked their stem cells. Companies claim that these cells, stored for a life-time, can be used to cure acute diabetes, Parkinson's Disease and spinal cord injury, more effectively than conventional medicine.

Each time I attend an event in this space, I hear of breakthrough cures using stem cells for diabetes, liver and heart ailments disease or Parkinson's Disease, says Ghaisas, 55, who left Oracle in 2008 to launch healthcare services firm Gencoval, of which Stemade is a part. 'Our attempt is to bring those innovations to India almost at the same time as they happen. Stemade is now looking to enter overseas markets like Singapore, the gateway to southeast Asian countries, and west Asia, which has an educated, health-conscious population.

Penetration levels for stem cell banking in India is just one in a 1,000 compared to 40 in the US. Sensing this opportunity, a host of firms have entered the space, including Chennai-based Life Cell International and Cordlife Sciences India, Mumbai-based ReliCord from Mukesh Ambani-owned Reliance Life Sciences, and Cordlife, based in Kolkata. LifeCell, which says it's India's largest, recently launched its 100th cell banking centre in Jammu and, now, covers 22 states.

There are around 10 companies in cord blood, says Shailesh Gadre, 40, MD, Stemade, who joined Ghaisas from pharma market research firm ORG IMS. Its' a crowded market.

Stemade uses a technology licensed out from the Institut Clinident of France, and has around 700 customers in India at present, adding around 70 a month. It aims to be in 15 Indian cities by end of next fiscal, after launching in New Delhi and Mumbai in Nov 2010.

Long gestation periods also pose a challenge. "Increasing quality requirements, meeting accreditations needs, and stringent policies enforced by local regulatory authorities make stem cell banking capital intensive, requiring relatively longer gestational periods," says KV Subramaniam, president and CEO, Reliance Life Sciences (RLS).

ReliCord A, a product from RLS, is used to treat thalassemia major, leukemia and anemia. About 35% of treated cases are reported to be successful so far and data from others is trickling in, Subramaniam adds. Lack of a national regulatory structure is also a challenge. The guidelines for stem cell banking are not clear yet, although the government is working on those, says Meghnath Roy Chowdhury, MD of Kolkata-based CordLife, a company that started operations in Singapore, but is listed in Australia.

India should benchmark with the global gold standards, so that quality is adhered to. He added: Most firms also use licensed technology, and have to pay hefty royalties. Cordlife, however, has developed its own technology for stem cell banking. It has over 10,000 customers and charges anywhere between R80,000 and R3 lakh for its services.

Ghaisas says he sniffed the potential of biotech even in his days at i-flex. I was approaching 47, and after putting in 20 years in IT, was looking at new opportunities. Gencoval, which stands for 'generating companion value', would be the vehicle for his healthcare and biotech foray.

India's economic growth in this decade will be accompanied by an expected rise in reported ailments by over 30% by 2015, and a change in disease profile driven by rapid urbanisation, consulting firm Ernst & Young India has said, making the healthcare sector attractive for investors. "Increasing awareness among educated couples and sensitisation regarding banking needs offered by doctors have resulted in an upward trend in stem cell banking in metros and second tier cities," says Subramaniam of RLS.

Texas Heart Institute doctors presented results of a clinical trial showing that cells derived from patients' own bone marrow produce a significant increase in the heart's ability to pump oxygen-rich blood, the Houston Chronicle reported on March 25.

"This study moves us one step closer to being able to help patients with severe heart failure who lack other alternatives," said James Willerson, president of the Texas Heart Institute and the study's principal investigator. "It also points to a future in which stem cells regenerate the heart."

The investment is not going to pay back in the initial years, but Stemade's Ghaisas says what matters is creating an ecosystem for the future, when most therapies will have stem cells included to create innovative therapies called advanced therapy medicinal products (ATMPs) in medical parlance. More value will come up when the actual therapeutic part starts, says Ghaisas, who is now learning painting with a private tutor. If I can help save one life, I'll be happy."