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Hope and hype
Affordable stem cell therapy in India is luring patients from across the world to come here for treatment. According to medical experts, stem cell treatment in India costs one-fourth of the expenses in Western countries. Industry sources say that the average cost of treatment in India is about $22,000 as against $30,000 in the UK, $50,000 in the US and $22,000 in Singapore. With several world-class medical facilities available in the country, treatment here can be undergone without a waiting period and with full compliance to the standard practices and procedures followed in the West. This is prompting a growing number of patients looking for stem cell treatment to travel to India to seek treatment for rare diseases.
Several hospitals in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune, Nagpur, Gurgaon, Jaipur and Chandigarh have come to acquire a reputation for specialising in stem cell treatment. States like Goa and Kerala, which are centres of tourism, have also come to develop excellent facilities for providing the treatment. All these facilities reportedly follow the guidelines and enjoy the approval of regulatory authorities such as the Drug Control General of India. Facilities that fail to scrupulously observe the guidelines on quality control risk attracting disqualification and censure. The recent introduction of the Schedule Y and Schedule M of Drugs and Cosmetics Act has made these facilities more wary of stringently following all the stipulated procedures for stem cell treatment.
As per the Gobal Business Intelligence Research report, the stem cell market in India is estimated to touch $ 600 million by 2017. It is this promise and potential that has made stem cell treatment the latest fad among medical practitioners and clinics. Some have already been able to carve out a name for themselves in stem cell research and treatment. For instance, Bangalore-based Stempeutics Research facility, which opened in 2006, specializes in a product known as Stempeucel, a potent treatment for limb ischemia and fatal liver cirrhosis. The product is currently undergoing the second phase of trial and is believed to have a great potential in India’s drug market. Biotech companies, such as Mumbai-based Kasiak, are banking on Stempeucel to magnify their revenue-earning prospects and are closely following the drug’s development cycle. It is estimated that Stempeucel alone has a market potential of about $100-$150 million.
Yet, the growing enthusiasm for stem cell treatment should be tempered with the customary caution. As a new-fangled mode of treatment, stem cell therapy shows great promise and potential, but care should be taken so that it does not end up the way of the snake oil. Many clinics that are offering stem cell treatments, both here and abroad, make claims about what stem cells can and cannot do that are not supported by present available scientific evidence. But in reality, the range of diseases where stem cell treatment has been shown to be beneficial in responsibly conducted clinical trials is still extremely restricted. One ICMR official admits that “there are dozens of clinics and hospitals offering yet-to-be-proven therapies, even advertising them through SMSes.” Polani B Seshagiri, an eminent bio-technologist who has been on various expert committees of the ICMR, too voices his concern about the nascent stage of the industry in India. “What you get in the country currently is not yet stem-cells ‘therapy.’ Strictly speaking, it is ‘clinical trial’ and anybody offering it ought to follow the rules of a trial.” So the hype surrounding this mode of treatment should not be at the expense of the science itself. A report on stem cells that appeared in USA Today in June last year concluded: “Reliable therapy is years away…When patients agree to undergo unapproved stem cell therapies, they are taking a leap of faith, based on little more than the word of their doctors and the encouragement of other patients.”
Worldwide, sales of stem cell products and surgeries touched $1.2 billion in 2012 compared to $410 million in 2008. According to GBI Research, the industry is poised to grow at 30% and estimated to reach around $16 billion in 2017. India has the potential and expertise to cash in on this emerging trend. But the quest to make stem cell treatment popular should not be through marketing gimmicks and by inflating the benefits of the therapy. Rather, the treatment offered should be on the basis of foolproof clinical trials and proven research.