The sole state-run stem cell therapy unit at the School of Tropical Medicine (STM), the country’s oldest institute for treatment of tropical diseases, has come under the scanner of the Union government owing to the inadequate infrastructure required for the therapy.
The unit has no permission from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and department of biotechnology for research and treatment using stem cells of patients.
Stem cells are mother cells that could contrive to become any kind of cell in the body.
They have the ability to self-renew or multiply while maintaining the potential to develop into other kinds of cells.
The Centre had sent an inquiry team led by Mamen Chandi, director of Tata Cancer Hospital in the city, to check the infrastructure facilities at the STM unit.
The team, which also featured Soumen Mukherjee, deputy director of Drug Control General of India, has already submitted its report to STM director Nandita Bose, director of medical education Susanta Banerjee and health secretary Satish Tiwari, voicing concern over inadequate infrastructure at the stem cell therapy unit.
“The central government had asked us to check the infrastructure facilities at the stem cell therapy unit at the STM. The inspection report is highly confidential and we have submitted it to the STM director,’ Chandi told HT on Sunday.
Asked whether the unit has valid permission from the concerned agencies, Chandi refused comments.
As part of an initiative by the state health department under chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the regenerative medicine unit at the STM had been set up in April 2012 to facilitate research and treatment of patients through stem cell therapy.
Niranjan Bhattacharya, a retired gynaecologist of Bijoygarh State General Hospital who is deemed close to the chief minister, was given the charge of the regenerative medicine department as medical officer.
“It’s a clear attempt to stop research on stem cell therapy at STM. You can quote me on this. We have applied for permission from different departments at the Centre. You could even talk to the health secretary and director of medical education about the inquiry report,” Bhattacharya told HT.
Both Tiwari and Banerjee are currently in the US on an official trip.
“The inquiry team has submitted its report and we are trying to follow its recommendations with regard to inadequate infrastructure in our regenerative medicine department,” Bose said.
According to the joint guidelines of the ICMR and department of biotechnology, stem cell therapy could only be used for such haematological disorders as leukaemia, thalassaemia, aplastic anaemia and other blood cancer ailments. The therapy is not deemed fit for treatment of cardiac arrest, stroke, diabetes and neurological ailments.
“Prior approval of the two agencies is essential for basic research on cord blood cell therapy,” said oncologist and stem cell therapy expert Asish Mukherjee. Sources in the health department said that the inspection team’s report has already kicked up a row among faculty members at STM.
“Around 16 patients are currently undergoing treatment by means of stem cell therapy at STM. Shortly after setting up the unit in August 2012, Hillol Bose and Buddhimanta Sarkar, who had both been admitted to the facility at the time, had undergone stem cell treatment. There was a major row following knowledge that a pathologist at Midnapore Medical College and Hospital had signed off on the treatment sheets of the two patients. Bhattacharya is a sole authority when it comes to signing the treatment sheets,” a faculty member said.
It later emerged that the therapy was done without the prior approval of either the STM director or the ethics committee headed by Manoj Chowdhury, special secretary in the health department.
The committee was formed to monitor research in the regenerative unit.
Bishnupada Biswas, former obstetrician of Bijoygarh State General Hospital, has also lodged a complaint with the chief minister regarding the stem cell therapy unit.
“He (Niranjan Bhattacharya) has been continuing stem cell research and treatment without seeking prior permission of the ICMR. I have moved complaints with the chief minister, health department and the West Bengal Medical Council, demanding an inquiry,” Biswas said.
However, Bhattacharya denied the claims, saying, “There are baseless charges. They don’t know anything about stem cell therapy.”