Crucial support from Bangalore

Print edition : September 15, 2001

THE Bangalore-based National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) is pleased that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the United State, has recognised it as one of the 10 research laboratories worldwide that can possibly supply embryonic stem cells for use by American researchers. However, Dr. Mitradas M. Panicker, a key member of the NCBS' Neuro-Biological Department, feels that there is still a long way to go before anything concrete could be said about the three human embryonic stem cell lines that the NCBS developed four months ago. "From this stage (embryonic) to achieve human stem cells will take time, and how long this will take in culture, no one knows at the moment," he said. K. VijayRaghavan, NCBS Director, said: "It will be very speculative to say what will happen to these lines in the future."

The three embryonic stem cell lines isolated at the NCBS, an aided but autonomous institution under the Tata Institute of Fundamental research, which have put India on the global biotechnology map, are among the 64 stem lines research which the Bush administration has recognised for federal funding. In other words, U.S. researchers can avail themselves of federal funds if they take up for research embryonic stem cells isolated by the NCBS. (There are currently over 200 stem cells lines but their specific utility is still being ascertained.)

According to Panicker, the NCBS may have three 'potential' human stem cell lines - inner cell masses that have been cultured and divided in vitro - derived from the core of five- to seven-day-old frozen embryos cultured to the blastocyst stage with the informed consent of the subjects for the specific purpose of research, and have been donated.

Isolating the stem cell lines has primarily been a joint effort of Panicker and a team of medical practitioners (Dr. Mehroo D. Hansotia, Dr. Sadhana K. Desai and Vijay Mangoli) from Mumbai's Fertility Clinic. While Panicker's team works on the aspects of basic research, the Mumbai team, which provided the frozen embryos, works on the clinical aspects and possible long-term medical applications. Experiments were initially conducted on the frozen embryos in Mumbai. After they were cultured, further tests were undertaken at the NCBS laboratory. Importantly, the stem cells have been in culture well before Bush's August 9 announcement that his administration was willing to fund only research on existing stem lines.

Panicker and his team worked for over two years on mouse embryonic cells before isolating the potential human stem cells. Since it was already established that mouse stem cells could generate all sorts of tissues, "I was intrigued by the possibility, (of isolating human cells)," Panicker said. Yet, he admits that much of what has been made of the discovery in his laboratory is mere media hype. What has caught media's attention is the fact that the NCBS and Reliance Life Sciences, Mumbai, have been chosen by the Bush administration for the supply of stem cells.

Panicker said: "Yes, it is exciting but it is certainly not as spectacular as is being made out. We are still in the embryonic stage as far as this research is concerned, and further information will only be available once we are ready to publish our findings. The fact that Bush had to make a decision put the NIH's decision in the limelight. And we were one of the 10 institutes chosen. But it is not as if these are the only 10 in the world. A number of laboratories in the United Kingdom have set up a bank of human stem cells. A fertility clinic in Boston has reportedly got 12,000 frozen embryos for Harvard University, which will generate cell lines."

The NIH was aware that the NCBS was working on stem cells and asked the centre if it would like to register the isolated stem cell lines with it. The NCBS has not taken any decision in this regard. The NIH is, however, yet to send the registration forms and specify the guidelines.

The NCBS hopes to enter into a collaboration with American researchers. This would mean that the NCBS' stem cell programme, which is internally funded on a small budget, could get U.S. funding. However, Panicker said that all collaborations would be subject to the guidelines issued by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and the Government of India rules, adding that no funding from an outside agency was used for this research (for isolating human cells).

"Potentially they (NIH) can fund us. But that would depend on whether we apply and register our lines with it and whether the NIH will accept our stem lines. But while international collaborations and funding are useful, we could also manage on our own," Panicker said. Incidentally, Dr. V.K. Vinayak, medical adviser to the DBT, was recently quoted as saying that the Indian government had launched three human stem cell pilot projects with around Rs.2 crores as seed money.

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