Human body is the only factory which can mint out blood stem cells, the cells responsible for making mature blood cells. But what if it were possible to generate them in a laboratory setting? The School of Biology at IISER-Thiruvananthapuram, led by assistant professor Satish Khurana, hopes to do the same.
Satish has been awarded the five-year Wellcome-DBT Intermediate Fellowship to research on the topic. He says, “Though there have been attempts to make stem cells in vitro, they had failed. In the labs, stem cells transform into specialist cells like red or white blood cells, but never into stem cells.”
The scientist lay his groundwork while at the Stem Cell Institute, Leuven, Belgium. “My post-doctoral research at Leuven was on Hematopoetic stem cells. Stem cells divide only in developmental stages, not in adult body. So we analysed embryos, compared the expression of genes at developmental stages with that of an adult body,” he says.
They prepared a list of molecules, which are likely to aid the mitosis of stem cells in a culture dish. “There is just one other lab in the world which has a similar kind of list and that is at Harvard,” says Satish.
The list prepared at Leuven, will now be tested using stem cells from mice. After a series of experiments, to see if the candidate molecules produce desired results in the culture dish when added to mouse stem cells, it will finally be transplanted to a mice.
“Even if the test is successful is on mice, the real test will be when the stem cell is transplanted into a human being. The blood stem cells of man and mice are similar, but not the same. Humans and mouse are mammals, but you cannot say that mouse is a small human being,” he says.
“We hope to get cord blood cells in a year’s time. Umbilical cords which are discarded at hospitals is a good source of blood stem cells. However, the paper work will take time,” he says. The paperwork for permissions to do trials on mouse took five months.
He says that paperwork is a lot more difficult in US and UK, however, in India it gets delayed. To the younger researchers, he advises to stay back in India and work with institutions like IISER. “Earlier, the research projects were not focused. Now, a PhD student at IISER, will know which project they are going to work on,” he says.
He says that the standard of scientific research in the country is low. “Very few institutions produce quality scientific research. Most institutions do not live up to the standards. So the average for India as a country is quite low,” he says.