At the forefront in India

Print edition : September 15, 2001

RELIANCE LIFE SCIENCES (RLS), a cell biology research centre based in Mumbai, was a relatively unknown unit of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) until the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced in early August that the RLS along with the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, would be among the 10 institutions world-wide that would be eligible for federal funding for stem cell research. RLS had met the U.S administration's criteria for derivation of human embryonic stem cells. The research centre has succeeded in creating seven stem cell lines. This makes it the third in rank among 10 institutions chosen by the NIH.

RIL vice-president Mukesh Ambani says the research centre is in fact part of RIL's larger plan to enter the rapidly developing field of biotechnology.

RIL has already invested $5 million in this facility. Over the next few years it plans to spend an additional $25 million on research. With this Reliance would become the first private enterprise to enter the field of cellular biotechnology in India. Given that it will be making a substantial investment in this sector, and given that Reliance has a reputation for seeking out business opportunities, the returns will perhaps be sizable.

Reliance refuses to divulge details of its business plans. However, a spokesperson for the business house told Frontline that RLS had submitted patents for the research methods it adopted. It is understood that the company will either hold the patent for the methods and products it develops or license it out, which will earn it hefty amounts in royalties. "Biotechnology is going to be a very lucrative area, and Reliance is clearly setting up its base," says an industry consultant. The company, however, does not plan to list on the capital markets to raise resources, at least not in the near future.

The stem cell lines created by RLS are based on donated human blastocyst stage embryos formed at the completion of fertility treatment. According to RLS, "Both frozen-thawed and fresh human embryos are used for generating embryonic stem cell lines. The donation is based on informed consent and fully follows all guidelines on the subject, both within India and the U.S."

With regard to the social and ethical debate of deriving stem cells, Dr. Firuza Parikh, the director of RLS since its founding, says that the research team does not take cells from the inner cell mass after the 14 days of fertilisation, which is when life is supposed to begin. The RLS method of removal has been submitted to the U.S. patent office.

Although the NIH has certain guidelines, the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) has its own set of rules, which Reliance has complied with. The RLS, incorporated in January 2001, made a presentation to the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) on July 4 on the cell biology initiative, which covered not only embryonic stem cells but also haemotopoietic stem cells, skin cells and genetics.

A team of seven persons began embryonic stem cell research at the RLS in April. The company is not forthcoming on how many frozen embryos the team has worked with. Parikh, however, says that in all probability the centre will have the embryonic stem cell lines available after characterisation in about six months from August. Once this is done, RLS will focus on differentiating them into cells connected with tissues and organs such as the heart, the pancreas and the central nervous system (CNS). According to RLS, diabetes, chronic heart diseases and stroke are major ailments where embryonic stem cells have significant therapeutic potential. RIL data estimate that by the year 2025, "India will have 57 million cases of diabetes, an increase of 148 per cent over the current figure of 23 million."

The embryonic stem cell group is also focussing on basic research such as gene discovery, drug discovery and establishment of several transformed cell lines. As to whether RLS might need to supply embryonic stem cells because it is a part of the NIH group, RLS says it would prefer collaborative research.

Parikh says RLS is creating a large cord blood repository that would cryopreserve stem cell-enriched cord blood at -196 C in a computer-controlled robotics-based bio-archive system. (The use of stem cell-enriched cord blood could replace bone marrow transplant.) The repository, she says, could be used for treating a range of diseases such as thalassaemia, haemophilia, leukaemia, sickle cell anaemia, Fanconi's anaemia and stroke.

As an adjunct to the repository, the centre is creating a molecular diagnostic facility for HL-A (histocompatibility lymphocyte-A) typing and infectious diseases testing. Eventually, the cell biology centre will have a facility to make cultured skin - covering cultured epidermis, cultured dermis and composite skin.

As part of the research centre is a facility for Assisted Reproduction and Genetics. In time RLS plans to start research in other areas of biotechnology, such as plants and industry. In the second phase of the cell biology initiative, the centre plans to establish a full-fledged regenerative medicine centre. Additional disciplines such as pancreatic, hepatic and retinal stem cells will come under this phase.

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