Stem the danger

Government evolving guidelines for stem cell treatment

Published: Saturday 30 April 2005

Careful: stem cell use needs c the Union government is devising guidelines to check the unmonitored use of stem cells for treating ailments. This is being done in view of the prevailing use of stem cells to cure heart diseases and blindness by many private and public institutions, a potentially dangerous practice. "This is cause for concern, as the safety and effectiveness of using stem cells are unproven worldwide and the clinics could be using infected or mutated cells," Vasantha Muthuswami, head of basic medical sciences at the New Delhi-based Indian Council of Medical Research (icmr), was quoted as saying by the journal Nature. icmr is involved in framing the said guidelines.

Stem cells are cells derived from early stages of embryos or the bone marrow; they can turn into any kind of body tissue and are hence useful for treatment. Once isolated, stem cells are cultivated in feeder layers consisting of a nutrient material derived from live animal cells. But there is a risk of viruses and other harmful agents being transmitted from the animal cells to the stem cells, and thus on to patients who receive stem cell therapy. "One needs to be careful. Unfortunately that's not the case at present," rues Muthuswami.

In 2002, icmr announced a policy that encouraged stem cell research and permitted therapeutic cloning; some institutes exploited these to begin clinical treatments. The department of biotechnology also issued guidelines in 2001. But all these guidelines pertained more to research and less to clinical treatments. Experts say the new guidelines will not stop research but ensure controls on clinical practices.

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