After failing to find a donor for a life-saving bone marrow transplant both in the US and India, Nalini Ambady, the first Indian American woman to teach psychology at Harvard and Stanford universities, died of leukemia last month.
But she is not the only one. In India, the situation is very grim.
According to experts, over 70 percent of patients in need of a stem cell transplant are unable to find a match due to lack of bone marrow donors. Also, the inventory of donated umbilical cord blood units is negligible.
Realising the need for a repository, LifeCell - India's first stem cell banking company - has planned to set up the country's largest public cord blood bank. The Chennai-based company plans to have an inventory of 10,000 units that can be used for treatment during serious medical conditions.
"The need for a public repository of donor stem cells is being felt sharply with the sad demise of Dr. Nalini Ambady as she could not find a bone marrow match either in the US or India despite a massive online campaign run by her family and friends," Mayur Abhaya, managing director and head of LifeCell, told IANS.
The company plans to spend Rs.25 crore/Rs 250 million for establishing the bank in Chennai in the next five years. At the moment, India has 15 private cord blood stem cell banks. But the need is growing day by day.
This was specially felt in the Nalini Ambady case. Despite searching for a match in the US and India, she could not find anything that could help her.
On the need for an extensive repository, Abhaya said: "Considering the huge ethnic diversity in the country many more units would be required to give patients a reasonable chance of finding a match."
The umbilical cord blood is a rich source of stem cells that have the potential to treat over 80 medical conditions today such as thalassemia (rare blood disorder), leukemia (blood cancer), myeloma (a type of bone marrow cancer), lymphoma (type of blood cancer) and many such critical diseases. Stem cells are regenerative cells that can be transplanted to replace damaged cells in the body.
"The idea is to improve the stem cell asset base in the country to make the benefits available to our people. As of now the umbilical cord blood is wasted post-delivery," he said.
"We have tied up with over 100 large public health institutions for collection of around 100,000 cord blood samples. Generally 1 in 10 samples are of storing quality; so by the end we will have a repository of 10,000 units," said Abhaya.
He said consent of the parent will be taken before releasing the unit to a needy patient.
"We have decided to keep a cost of Rs. 500,000 (over $8,300) to source a unit of cord blood as compared to $40,000-50,000 (Rs. 25 lakh) in the US. In Europe, it costs the equivalent of Rs.21 lakh," he said.
"In the recent years a large number of umbilical cord blood banks have been created worldwide to provide more access to these precious stem cells.
"In 2005 there were less than 25 banks worldwide and now there are over 500 banks around the world with an umbilical cord blood bank now established in almost every major country," he said.
Umbilical cord blood banking is today regarded as an essential service globally wherein the precious stem cells are collected from the umbilical cord blood and preserved in minus 190 degree Celsius in order to maintain its utility for decades.