Two Indian scientific institutions are among 10 in the world that have been identified as eligible for U.S. assistance in stem cell research. This is expected to give a major boost to this new and controversial area of study in India.
In the last year, the Life Sciences Laboratory in Bombay and the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore have developed several embryonic stem cell lines. This makes them eligible to work with the U.S. National Institutes of Health under recent guidelines announced by the Bush administration.
Stem cell research is a relatively new and controversial area of study. Stem cell lines are living cultures of cells derived from one single embryo that can develop into many other types of tissues. Scientists hope to use them to treat a range of diseases.
In countries like the United States the move to harvest stem cells for research has generated much heat from anti-abortionists who feel it is wrong to treat human life as a scientific tool.
But there is no outcry in India regarding stem cell research, in fact not even a debate. Most Indians are not aware of the research or its controversial nature. Those familiar with the subject broadly believe that, if this study can find relief for diseases, it should be encouraged.
Neither is there any legal ban on the use of embryos and aborted fetuses. In overpopulated India, abortions are legal, and the subject has not attracted religious scruples in the majority Hindu community.
The Director of Bombay's Life Sciences Laboratory, Firuza Parikh, hopes Indian scientists will be able to fill the void created by restrictions imposed on stem cell research in countries like the United States. She says religious, cultural and political circumstances in India are not in conflict with this area of study, and there is much excitement about its future. "If things work out well, and everyone is very hopeful, there will be a global impact, not only in the biotechnology industry as such but for the betterment of human kind," she says. "Stem cells, if they maintain their promise, are going to be able to help people who have Parkinson's disease, strokes, heart disease, people who cannot walk, people who have undergone accidents, cancer patients, thalessaemics."
The Department of Biotechnology's adviser VK Vinayak says the government's policy is to actively encourage medical research using embryonic stem cells. "We have a lot of material available," he says. "Like one can take stem cells from aborted fetuses. We have a large number of aborted fetuses available. Because of pregnancies, we have a large number of [umbilical] cord blood available. If we can use [it] judiciously and with certain checks and controls we will make a mark in developing biotherapies."
Although India is ahead of several countries in stem cell research, biologists say the field is still in its infancy. Government funding at about $200,000 has been limited, and is likely to remain low in a country with more basic urgent health needs. But scientists say that, with U.S. funding, India could make huge strides in the area.