Stem cell banking, a Rs100-crore business in India

Stem cell banking, a Rs100-crore business in India

New Delhi: Almost non-existent a few years ago in the country, stem cell banking is now a flourishing business with more and more people wishing to store their baby’s cord blood as a form of bio-insurance, even though it comes at a heavy price.

Cord blood storage is fast gaining momentum as a less traumatic alternative to treat neurological illnesses, and as a guarantee for the family against a host of diseases.

Stem cell treatment is a therapy in which new cells are injected into damaged tissues and banks generally charge anything between Rs60,000 and Rs80,000 to harvest the cord blood for private use.

Increased awareness about the benefits of stem cell therapies has led to mushrooming of several firms providing treatment and blood storing services in less than six years.

According to Stem Cell Global Foundation (SCGF), a Delhi-based organisation promoting research, stem cell banking is a Rs100 crore business in India and at an annual growth of over 35%, it is expected to touch Rs140 crore by 2010.

The overall market for stem cell research is also growing very fast and it could reach Rs2,200 crore by next year, said Karan Goel, chairman and founder of the foundation.

“The reason behind the exceptional growth is because therapies using stem cells are giving hopes to millions of patients afflicted with chronic diseases and not responding to conventional treatment," Goel said.

According to Goel, "Market growth estimates for other Asian countries, except China, are less than that for India."

While there are currently seven institutes which provide the cord blood storing facilities, over 15 institutes are involved in research and therapy.

LifeCell, the first such organisation to bring this concept to India, claimed that about 20,000 parents have so far banked their baby’s cord blood stem cells with it.

Cyrobanks India, another major player, said to have gathered more 15,000 clients since it made an entry in the country four years ago.

“It’s a growing field and we are confident with the growing awareness, more and more people will come forward to store their baby’s cord blood," said Asim Ghazi, a spokesperson for Cyrobanks India.

According to health experts, the stem cells collected from the cord blood of a newborn are very rich that can differentiate into blood and immune system as well as heart, brain, spinal and pancreatic tissues.

“These stem cells have the power to regenerate, repair or replace damaged cells in the body," said Dr Sonia Naik at Sitaram Bharatia Institute of Science and Research, New Delhi.

“It is like an assurance for the child and its family members," she said, adding a child’s stem cells have a 25% chance to match for a sibling.

Dr Anoop Mishra, head of diabetes and metabolic diseases, Fortis Hospitals, said stem cells are also ideal for treating genetically inherited disorders of metabolism.

"If you have a family history or are worried about a predisposition to certain diseases, cord blood banking could be your ray of hope,“ said Mishra, who recently undertook a clinical trial using stem cells to cure diabetic foot.

Globally, stem cells are used to treat over 130 diseases and it is estimated that more than 500 clinical trials are being done to develop therapies using stem cells.

“The cells can be used in allogenic or autologous transplant for Haematopoietic regeneration in diseases like thalassemia, leukemia, cancers and many more," Dr Naik said.

However, people are little skeptical about procedure being adopted by the laboratories to store the cord blood as there were no regulatory norms.

But allying such fears, Ghazi of Cyrobanks said banks adopt highly advanced technology in preserving the placenta umbilical cord after the baby is delivered and the cord cut.

“This blood is sent to a bank where it is processed and preserved by freezing them in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius," he said, adding through the procedure blood can be safely stored for 600 years.

However, these facilities come at a very heavy price.

“There is a fee for service in case of private donation as the cord blood product is owned by the mother. In case of public donation the parents do not incur any charges," said Ghazi, adding that with increasing number of clients, the fees will also go down.