Banking For Life
Asia Cryo-Cell could radically transform India’s clinical research landscape with its public stem cell registry As the creator of Lifecell, India’s first private stem cell bank, one would expect an aura of excitement at Asia Cryo-Cell. A visit to their lab in Keelakottaiyur near Chennai, where the company has its cord blood stem cell bank, dispels this notion. The scientists at the lab take a cautious line on what they say.
Despite ‘harvesting’ stem cells from the umbilical cord, rather than the controversial embryonic mode, they steer clear of any discussion on why the international regulatory bodies still do not permit the extraction of stem cells from any fertile source. This caution, however, is not hindering its ambitious plan to start a public stem cell bank.
Asia Cryo-Cell wants to be the first to create a registry of stem cells in India. Any hospital in the world will then be able to access this public bank to buy stem cells. Considering that a vial of these precious cells cost as much as $50,000, this is big business.
“Unless a public stem cell bank can create a large repository of over 20,000 entries, it would not make sense,” says V.R. Chandramouli, CEO, Asia Cryo-Cell. Its private stem cell bank has over 4,200 donors, but the cells are the donors’ private property and can be used for treating only their kith and kin.
The other major challenge is creating trust — getting people from all walks of life to voluntarily give samples. Even though Asia Cryo-Cell was founded by Abhaya Kumar, the man behind the $100-million Shasun Drugs and Chemicals, and has R. Thyagarajan, founder of the Rs 6,000-crore Sriram Group, as chairman, it is open to the idea of bringing in bigger names. To this end, Chandramouli and his team are entering into joint ventures with like-minded institutions globally.
One big collaboration is with Hygiea, a Japanese research organisation. It will work on therapies for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), liver disorders and paralytic stroke. Asia Cryo-Cell will also work with US-based Senaron for basic and clinical research in stem cell-based therapies. While most of these plans are still on paper, Chandramouli is confident that his company will grow to a Rs 100-crore firm by 2009.
The company hopes to kickstart Asia Cryo-Cell Malaysia by April 2007 to address the markets in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Bangladesh. Working with KPJ Hospitals, Malaysia, it plans to take over a private stem cell bank there and create a public bank on this base. A cord blood collection centre will also be set up in Dubai to cater to the large pool of NRIs who wish to save stem cells in India.
While attempts at global technical collaborations are on, Asia Cryo-Cell has already found some financers for its plans. “Some major venture capital firms have shown interest,” says Chandramouli. He hopes to make an announcement in this regard in the next three weeks or so.