India with its huge population can become an ideal place for medical research in stem cell, but due to lack of awareness and investment, its progress is slowing down. Vipul Jain, CEO, Advancells talks about the company’s vision for stem cell research and progress in India, to Usha Sharma
Give us a brief about your company’s inception?
I have been a part of healthcare marketing for over 12 years now and somewhere in 2009-10, a few patients started talking about stem cell therapies if I could help them find a centre, where they could opt for these therapies. Unfortunately, none such centre operated in India and there were very few across the world. Once I studied the subject in-depth it occurred to me that this would be the future of medicine and it was the right time to enter this field. The hope of changing medicine as we know it today inspired me to get into this practice and I established Advancells in 2013.
In the past seven years of our operations, we have grown strength to strength and are today one of the largest providers of stem cell therapies in India.
When we started Advancells, we aimed at becoming a pioneer in the research and development of regenerative medicine. We wanted to have India at the forefront of protocols and technologies in the industry and so we decided to venture into a wide array of services. In order to become a centre of medical advancement, we had to ensure we offered services to all sorts of patients, irrespective of their condition. We believe in treating our patients in a progressive manner.
Tell us about the challenges you faced while setting up your business?
Lack of investment is the biggest challenge. Most new investments in healthcare sector still come from Trusts and charities who enter the segment for charity and with a no-profit no-loss mindset. This restrains their capacity to invest in research and new technologies and hence it is not easy to get cutting edge technologies in the country. India with its huge population base can be a perfect place for strong medical research but the lack of awareness and investment are the major reasons for India to lag behind in research. It is not easy for healthcare researchers to attract private money as private investors are worried about the long gestation period for their investment.
The other major challenge is the acceptance of doctors of a new branch of medicine. It is very difficult to convince doctors of a new way to treat patients and understandably they want long term follow-up data. This data will take time to come and hence growth can not be as fast as you expect it to be. Government regulations are another challenge as agencies are always a little slow to react to innovation.
The expense of research and clinical preliminaries is high in the case of regenerative medicine, in this way confining the research objectives. Aside from cost/enormous speculations, other challenges are administrative difficulties with changing rules across nations, on account of contrasts in the suppositions and social perspectives. Setting up a solitary/regular arrangement or rule worldwide to administer stem cell research could be helpful. Human embryos for research, somatic cell, nuclear move, IPSCs have raised concerns due to their long hatching periods.
So how does your model work?
Advancells works in four different verticals. Firstly, we produce basic human stem cells that are used by partner hospitals and doctors in providing regenerative therapies to the patients. Advancells also writes protocols for therapies and provide training to doctors on various facets of regenerative medicine. In the second vertical, we produce organ, species and disease-specific primary cells, which are used by research institutes, academic institutes and pharma companies around the world to further their research in the field of biology and drugs.
In the third vertical, we produce our patented range of bioscaffolds which once seeded with our cells, are used in the regeneration of bones, organs and healing of wounds. Fourthly, we print 3D human organs and finally seed our scaffolds with our primary cells and paste them on the 3D printed organ models and try to create working modal of a human organ that can be used by pharma companies for drug discovery models. Our moonshot is to be able to produce a transplantable human artificial organ that can one day put an end to mortality rate due to non-availability of transplantable human organs.
We are essentially a B2B business where doctors and hospitals, research institutes, pharma companies etc., are our clients, but we regularly get approached by a number of patients both from India and abroad who want our protocols for treatment. We do provide B2C services to such patients also.
We are currently operating out of our centralised lab in Noida, Delhi/NCR and are able to ship cells to various hospitals not just across India but also in various countries around the world.
Does India have well-defined stem cell treatment regulations?
Surprisingly very well. India has been always been a follower especially when it comes to medical research. There has hardly been any major medical innovation that has come out of India but things seem to be changing this time. It looks like there will be a good case study where India might just take the lead in stem cell technology and be a world leader in it. We have all the required resources and brainpower to make it happen, all we need is a supportive legislature, progressive regulators, understanding investors and gritty innovators and you will see things rolling.
The Government of India has started promoting Stem Cell Research with the help of its agencies. The focus is on identifying diseases and conditions that can be cured. Programmes to support embryonic and adult stem cell research are in place. Some of the developments include setting up human embryonic stem cell lines, using limbal stem cells to repair corneal surface disorder; classification of haematopoietic, mesenchymal and liver stem cells; as well as segregation of stem cells into neural, cardiac and cell lineages, etc.
For the rest of the world, there are many researchers who are creating pathbreaking records. Scientists from the University of California, for instance, have created an approach via stem cells to deal with cancerous tissue while anticipating some dangerous reactions of chemotherapy by treating the disease in a progressive manner.
So what’s the scope for stem cell research/ therapy?
Stem cells present a unique opportunity to treat the disease that currently is termed as untreatable. They also help us in treating the diseases from the core and not just managing the symptoms. These properties give regenerative medicine a unique status.
You conduct 15-20 treatment in a month despite the unclear regulations in India? Do you see this as a challenge and deal with it?
We deal only with hospitals and doctors who have taken permission from the government and hence the reach is very low.
How do you differentiate your therapies from other existing players? What all guideline you follow and what is the success ratio?
There is no real credible competition for us. The big players in the market are primarily into cord blood banking and for the therapy is a side product on which they don’t concentrate. There are few doctors who practice regenerative medicine on their own but could never match up with the product catalogue or research backing that we have.
There is an exhaustive consent form and clear inclusion and exclusion criterion and the patients are council-led at multiple points before the procedure.
Which are the therapeutic areas Advancells provides stem cell solutions and how safe are they? What is your future plan?
Advancells provide stem cell solutions for orthopaedics, neurology, diabetes etc. It is completely safe. We are targeting to venture into Cosmetics, Ophthalmology.