Public stem cell bank halts operations for want of moolah

(Stem Cells News image)

CHENNAI – The country’s first public stem cell bank has stopped accepting cord blood donations.

After processing and storing stem cells from cord blood of 569 women since February 2009, Jeevan Stem Cell Bank has put its operations on hold owing to lack of funds. The bank hopes that the situation will soon change, and it can restart operations once more donations come in.

Private banks charge anywhere up to Rs 1.5 lakh for extraction and preservation of these cells, but Jeevan, which started with an initial investment of Rs 3 crore, depends on public goodwill and corporate donations. The stem cells, capable of developing into different kinds of cells and tissues and curing diseases like blood cancer and thalassemia, were planned to be offered for common use.

When the bank began, it aimed at processing and storing at least 30,000 units of stem cells from cord blood by 2014, but for collecting and processing each unit, it cost the bank Rs 30,000. The cost of harvesting cord blood is Rs 8,500 and tissue typing costs Rs 7,000, besides others. “This wasn’t viable without more donations. We have stopped operations,” the stem cell bank’s medical director Saranya Narayan said.

Stem cells have a shelf life of 24 years. “As of now, there is good cure rate from stem cell therapy for some blood-related diseases. The cells may grow damaged tissues or organs. Stem cell therapy has the potential to cure more than 70 medical conditions,” she said.

The bank offers processed stem cells for treatment at a cost of Rs 2 lakh per unit and also promises to give it free of cost for people living below the poverty line. “We have not offered stem cell lines to anyone yet because our inventory of 569 units is too small for a country of 1.2 billion. We must ensure a 100% tissue match for treatment. This does not happen with such a small inventory,” said Dr P Srinivasan, managing trustee, Jeevan Blood Bank.

The bank was hoping to increase the inventory to 10,000 units by March 2012 and eventually to 100,000.

If that happens, at least 60% of patients suffering from blood cancer thalassemia would have access to treatment. In India, 1.2 lakh new blood cancer cases and 10 lakh thalassemia cases are diagnosed annually. “For many who have not banked stem cells, the only option now is to look for public stem cell banks abroad. India does not have any large bank,” he said.

These stem cells come at a cost of $45,000 per unit (Rs 25 lakh) and less than 10% of the people will have a good match.

India needs a successfully running public stem bank, said Dr Srinivasan. “All we need is Rs 30 crore every year for the next five years. This is achievable with generous donation from corporates and individuals,” he said.


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