Stem cells: medical magic

Simran Kaur, 42, was suffering from cerebellar ataxias, a rare genetic disorder, which left her wheelchair bound, incontinent, with slurred speech and no chances of improvement. Her family then came to know about human embryonic stem cell therapy. A few weeks of treatment later her condition improved, giving a new ray of hope to the family.

Simran is among the few people from 43 countries who are undergoing human embryonic stem cell therapy in a Delhi-based hospital, Nutech Mediworld, which claimed to be the first facility in the world providing treatment for incurable diseases through this therapy.

In embryonic stem cell therapy, cells are taken from a discarded embryo during in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), cultured and injected into the body of a person suffering from terminal disease.

Embryonic stem cells can divide and grow into any body part and cell following the normal division that is initially inherent in an embryo.

Over the last ten years, the technology developed by Geeta Shroff, the medical director of Nutech Mediworld, has been used to treat more than 1,000 patients, one-fourth of them from abroad, suffering from conditions labelled as incurable or terminal.

'I have been on a wheelchair for the last 10 years and with time, the condition was becoming worse. I was not able to talk, walk or do any routine work on my own. Doctors had told my family that for the rest of my life, I would be wheelchair bound,' Simran said.

While searching online for any possible cure, Simran's brother who lives in Canada came to know about the treatment offered by Shroff, and the family approached her two months ago. The results of two months of treatment have left the family with hope of Simran becoming self-dependent if not recovering fully.

'I was injected with human embryonic stem cells two months back and I can feel the change. I can talk much clearer and move my limbs a little bit,' said Simran, who has been enrolled for 18 months of treatment at a cost of Rs 8 lakh.

Shroff, 46, an IVF expert, hogged headlines in 2005 when she treated Ajit Jogi, former chief minister of Chhattisgarh, after he was seriously injured in an accident.

It all started in 2000, when during an IVF she stumbled upon certain things in the process and this attracted her to research.

'I have developed the technology to isolate stem cells from embryo, culturing them and preparing them for clinical application. The technology involves the use of only one embryo. Once the cells are isolated, they can be cultured indefinitely,' Shroff said.

'The embryo was used with full consent of a couple who came to me for IVF and it would have been discarded in any case. There is no repeated need for embryos and theoretically one cell line can treat the entire human population,' she said.

Shroff, who has worked for eight years in Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital, is using the technology clinically to treat patients suffering from various conditions – spinal cord injury, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons's disease, cardiac conditions and many more said to be incurable.

'In more than 10 years of clinical application in over 1,000 patients, the results are nothing short of astounding and patients paralysed neck downwards have resumed full function of their arms and taking steps with support, diabetics on high doses of insulin are leading lives insulin free,' she said.

Explaining about the benefits of embryo cell therapy over the umbilical cord, fetal and other such therapies, Shroff says the unique cell culture methodology makes the cells universally acceptable without the need for cross-matching, irrespective of gender, or race.

'There have been no side effects in over 10 years of therapeutic usage,' she said.

According to Shroff, embryo stem cell therapy is not a magic wand and patients ought to have patience as it takes years for healing.

'Although responses are seen immediately after transplantation, the cells continue their development process as per their pre-programmed time frame. It can be said that the time frame of embryonic stem cells transplanted into a patient is closely linked with the time frame of the human embryo's development,' she said.

The procedure is expensive but realising the pain which the patient undergoes throughout life, it is worth trying for.

The treatment package is tailor-made for every patient according to the disease. The cost lies somewhere between USD 3,000 for a 10-day treatment to USD 25,000 for a complete package that includes treatment, food and lodging for patient and his family, physiotherapy and other facilities.

Shroff has applied for patent of technology and has been following the draft guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

'As per the draft guidelines, embryonic stem cell can only be used for treating incurable diseases and this is what I am doing. I send details of all my patients to ICMR for record,' she said.

All patients are followed up from the beginning of their treatment, their progress monitored and documented.

By Richa Sharma, courtesy IANS.
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