New Jersey-based NRI Apratim ‘Tim’ Dutta is in the process of starting a non-embryonic stem cell drive in India: already, 500 registered donors have been registered in Chennai, and they will be part of a global database that can be used by Indians the world over.
‘Donor’ stem cells - procured by a simple blood donation – are used by patients suffering from haematological diseases like leukaemia, instead of the more complicated bone marrow transplant. Dutta launched this initiative when his wife, Piya, was diagnosed with leukaemia a few years ago. “I was told at the US National Registry that there were no samples from Indian donors,” recalls Dutta. He finally found a Pakistani woman living in London who had the same gene type. In 2004, he started Matchpia, that now has a collection of 32,000 registered donors of Indian origin in the US, who are willing to donate stem cells whenever the need may arise -- provided they match the patient's Human Leukocyte Antigen.
In India, whenever patients need stem cells, they fall back on relatives, who have a 25 per cent ‘type match’ chance. “If the type does not match, that’s the end of the road because there’s no bank,” says Dutta. Mumbai’s Tata Memorial and Delhi’s AIIMS have their stem cell banks — but donors are relatives of patients.
In India, every region has a distinctive gene pool so Matchpia will have centres in nine cities: Delhi, Chandigarh, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad.” In each city, the top four or five companies will be working in tandem with Matchpia — as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes — by requesting their employees to volunteer as donors. Companies include Polaris, Genpact, Infosys, Microsoft, L&T, iFlex and Mphasis. And labs like the US-based Abbott Laboratories will take care of the cheek swab testing required for donor registration.
Around a million cancer cases get reported in India every year, says Dr Sameer Kaul, senior surgeon, Apollo Cancer Institute. The real number would be much more. “Of these, 7 to 8 per cent are blood-related cases,” he says.
YK Sapru, founder, chairman and CEO of the Mumbai-based Cancer Patients Aid Association, says, “A Bangalore-based patient could not find a ‘gene match’ as he didn’t have a sibling, and had been taken to Pittsburg for further treatment, that cost Rs 1.5 crore.” For a stem cell transfer from the new bank, the cost will be between Rs 10 to 16 lakhs.