Centre steps up to debunk myths about stem cell therapy

Centre steps up to debunk myths about stem cell therapy

If you’re an expecting parent, you would have probably come across advertisements that ask you to store your baby’s umbilical cord blood as a rich source of stem cells. 

Dubbed as ‘community banking’, cord blood banks or stem cell banks come with the promise of protecting your family and your relatives from a range of diseases. 

Not all promises that these banks make are, however, backed by scientific evidence.

The country’s apex medical research body, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), is coming up with norms in January that will serve as guidelines for stem cell banks and research bodies. 

Speaking to DH, Dr Geeta Jotwani, Deputy Director-General, ICMR, who drafted the National Guidelines for Stem Cell Research, said: “We have been continuously receiving complaints against stem cell banks that unscrupulous entities are luring people into stem cell therapy.”

Bengaluru is home to several stem cell research bodies and stem cell banks. There should be a public cord blood bank/stem cell bank where people can donate for the benefit of thalassemia, sickle cell anaemia patients and haemato-oncological/blood cancer conditions, Jotwani said. 

However, there is no evidence for the use of stem cells as a therapy for those who have muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injury or any genetic disorders. 

“People are being misguided into using their cord blood for ‘future use’. Initially, it was for self-use, but now they have come up with community banking. They say it is for relatives and family. So essentially the donors are unrelated. Umbilical cord blood is useful in only 33 listed conditions in the guidelines. There’s no scientific evidence for any other ‘future use’ that banks promise,” Dr Jotwani added. 

Heads of cord blood banks that DH contacted did not respond.

“We are coming up with guidelines for approved and unapproved stem cell therapies early next year,” Dr Jotwani said, for which more than 40 medical speciality societies were consulted for scientific evidence where stem cells were useful. 

Dr Sudarshan Ballal, nephrologist and chairman, Manipal Hospitals, said: “We’ve had patients go as far as China, some to other states and get stem cell therapy and come back sick. Some have died in the process after spending lakhs, sometimes up to a crore rupees. End-stage kidney disease, liver disease and degenerative neurological disorders are where these promises are made.” 

Stempeutics Research, a part of Manipal Group, is a late-stage life science company focused on developing and commercialising novel therapeutics based on adult stem cells. 

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