We all have our origin in the fertilized egg, a single cell. The egg divides to give rise, eventually, to many billions of cells. At an early stage there are only a few hundred cells. Some of these cells are pluripotent, which means that they can give rise at later stages to any of the specialized cells of our bodies such as skin, nerve, blood and muscle cells. Cells at the embryonic stage can be separated and placed in a culture dish where they can grow and multiply. Under certain conditions these cells can be made to differentiate, that is change, into cells of a variety of different types such as muscle, nerve and skin.
Since they can both multiply and give rise to different kinds of cells they are referred to as stem cells, and since they come from the early embryo, they are called embryonic stem cells.
Remember the story about Raktabij the rakhshash sprouting new heads and limbs as soon as it was cut off by Devi Durga?
Implication of stem cell research is, in the near future doctors should be able to re-generate a whole arm or a section of your brain which has been damaged by accident, like the stuff you would read about in Harry Potter or in some of our pouranaik kahanis.
Bala Subramanian, a cellular biologist who works on adult corneal stem cells at an eye hospital in the city of Hyderabad said, “India already has the expertise to work on stem cells.”
While this could lead to important medical developments, there are some snags related to stem cell research.
Important source of stem cells are human embryos. Embryonic stem cell research has thus resulted in a rush of fetus-harvest for research, the trafficking in human fetuses that are created with the sole intent of aborting them to harvest their parts.
This has caused concern among human rights groups and governments in many countries. They raise the issue that each embryo is endowed with the potential to develop into a unique individual and as such deserves the right to protection as human entities. “Human beings are not a raw material to be exploited, or a commodity to be bought or sold as spare parts,” reiterated the US government.
Another problem is technical. Stem cells not under proper control could give rise to cancer cells for making them functional in the right place in the body is a very difficult problem. One of the major problems in using embryonic stem cells to cure a patient comes from the body mounting an immune response to the foreign cells as they were taken from someone else’s embryo and so rejecting and destroying the implanted cells.
While scientists are engaged in labs to find a way out of such problems, governments are trying to resolve the issue of protection of human considerations of ethics and morality.
India has no policies covering stem cell research and is only in the early stages of formulating them. Two Indian research organizations possess colonies of embryonic stem cells, known as cell lines, which can develop into many other types of tissues and which scientists believe could create new treatments for diabetes and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. The National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore and Reliance Life Sciences in Bombay — have a total of 10 cell lines. Each of these lines can be replicated many times for use in different lines of research.
The Department of Biotechnology under the Ministry of Science and Technology and Indian Council of Medical Research have jointly formulated draft guidelines for stem cell research. As per the guidelines, stem cell research has been classified under permissible, restricted and prohibited categories. The research pertaining to adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells would be classified as permissible. However, embryonic stem cell research falls under restricted category. It can be carried out with the approval of institutional committees and National Apex Committee. Research pertaining to reproductive cloning and introducing animal embryos in humans has been categorized as prohibited.
However, Indian scientific community upholds this view : “If embryonic stem cell research can find relief for incurable diseases, it should be encouraged,” said V.K. Vinayak, an adviser on genomics in the government’s Department of Biotechnology. “That is also life.”
In a recent e-mail message to The Washington Post, Firuza Parikh, founder and director of Reliance Life Sciences said: “We are for embryonic stem cell research. Religious, cultural and political circumstances here are not in conflict with our work.” Indian scientists said that the Bush policy (he introduced The Fetus Farming Prohibition Act) creates a windfall for researchers in such countries as India.