Potential of Stem Cell Research Highlighted
The branch of medicine termed stem cell research could prove to be a revolutionary factor in the treatment of diseases hitherto considered incurable and even in reversing or at least retarding the aging process.
This information was imparted by Dr Tahir Shamsi, director and senior professor of haematology of the National Institute of Blood Diseases (NIDB), Karachi, while speaking at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST) on Thursday afternoon.
Defining a stem cell, he said, a stem cell was a cell from the embryo or the foetus that, under certain conditions, had the capability of reproducing itself for long periods, or in the case of adult cells, throughout the life of the organism. Adult stem cells, he said, were less versatile. Currently, Dr Shamsi said, there were around 80,000 stem cell transplants annually the world over and 60 percent of cases were treated successfully.
In September 1995, he said, the first bone marrow transplant was performed on a new-born girl in Pakistan and she survived while earlier two of her siblings had died of bone marrow disorders. He said that between 1995 and 2010, transplant of adult stem cells showed an uninterrupted upward trend.
Dr Shamsi informed the participants that regenerative medicine was started in Pakistan in 2000 and narrated the case of a heart bypass surgery case at the National Institute of Heart Diseases, where they introduced adult stem cells where the damaged tissue was. As a result, he said, today the patient’s condition was perfectly normal with no signs of heart damage which otherwise invariably occurred after a heart attack as the damaged tissue had been replaced with new healthy adult stem cells that regenerate themselves.
He said normally the effects of heart bypass surgery began to lose effectiveness after around five years but not so with stem cell therapy. He said the best thing about stem cell therapy was that damaged or mutilated organs could regenerate themselves.
Dr Shamsi, however, talked about the opposition to stem cell research in the west, and said that the opposition was not to adult stem cell research but to embryonic stem cell research as the latter very versatile and hence liable to get out of control which could have lethal results. This could raise objections on grounds of ethics, he observed. Another undesirable outcome could be cloning, whereby a number of 100 percent identical humans could be produced which could have a very dangerous outcome.
It could, he said, also lead to exploitation by unscrupulous elements, as despite knowing fully well that a case was beyond cure, an unscrupulous surgeon could take a mighty fee from a patient on the pretext that he was going to perform the expensive stem cell therapy and thus rake in money from one who is not going to benefit anyway because of his illness being fatal. Much research, he said, was still needed into this new realm of medicine and ethical concerns had to be taken into account. Besides, he said, in Pakistan there was still a long way to go as the present infrastructure was deficient and there was a dearth of adequately trained personnel.
In reply to a question, Dr Shamsi said that stem cell surgery could reverse or at least retard the aging process because the aging tissue would be replaced by healthy regenerative adult stem cells.