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SCIENCE

French stem-cell store banks on healthy future

© AFP

Text by Dhananjay KHADILKAR

Latest update : 2013-08-28

A French company is offering to harvest and store people's own stem cells in liquid nitrogen in the hope that those cells may be used one day to replace diseased organs. But banking your stem cells comes at a hefty price.

It is said that alchemists were obsessed with finding the elixir of life that would confer eternal youth and immortality.

Whether the practitioners of this ancient science got anywhere close to their goal remains a mystery.

But modern medicine, it seems, is on the cusp of achieving something equally remarkable: not exactly immortality, but a chance to combat age-related diseases and treat serious ailments affecting vital organs.

One company leading the charge is Paris-based Cellectis. The biotech firm is offering to store people’s stem cells in the hope that these “building blocks” can be used in the future to replace diseased organs.

“We will be storing pluripotent induced stem cells generated from a skin sample. These cells have the potential to provide any kind of body tissue with which to rebuild the damaged tissues of organs including the heart, liver, pancreas, etc,” said André Choulika, the company CEO, in a telephone interview.

'Rebooting' cells

The French company’s bold offer is based on the groundbreaking work of Prof. Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese scientist and the 2012 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, with whom Cellectis is collaborating.

André Choulika, 48, says banking your stem cells is a "one-time investment, for life". © Cellectis

Crucially, Prof. Yamanaka has developed a technique to derive stem cells – embryonic cells with the potential to create virtually any human cell or tissue – from adult cells.

“In layman's terms, you add a cocktail of things to the adult cells, which then forget the state they are in and ‘reboot’ back to the first stage of life. It’s as if your cells had gone back to their state just after fertilisation, nine months before birth,” Choulika explained.

According to the Beirut-born CEO, the earlier these cells are stored the more effective they will be. “As time passes, your DNA is gradually altered. In order to have better stem cells, it’s better to store them at an early, healthier stage. If you want to preserve your genetic inheritance and background, it’s better to freeze time immediately in the form of stem cells,” he said.

Cellectis says its offer is best suited to people who are mostly healthy and who want to enjoy the full benefits of regenerative medicinal treatment in the next 10 or 20 years.

“Our offer is not for people who need immediate treatment, but rather those who might need it in the future, if they are affected by some age-related disease,” said Choulika.

A complex, costly procedure

Choulika predicts regenerative medicine will start fulfilling its potential in the next five years. “Currently, there are only ongoing clinical trials, including one in Japan to heal age-related macular degeneration – or people losing sight because of retina degradation. We are confident science will move forward and provide therapies using this technique,” he said.

The procedure isn’t cheap, though. Those interested in storing their stem cells will have to pay $60,000 and an annual $500 in maintenance charges starting from the third year.

“It’s a complicated process,” Choulika explained. “The stem cells will be stored in liquid nitrogen, at -180 degrees Celsius, in three mirror banks located in Singapore, Dubai and Switzerland. We chose three different locations in different regions of the world to ensure we always have a backup in case there’s an earthquake or other unforeseen problems.”

While stem-cell treatments have often raised ethical questions, Choulika contends that these questions were related to the use of embryonic cells. “The cells obtained from our procedure are not embryonic cells, they are simply similar to embryonic stem cells,“ he said.

“Unlike with embryonic stem-cell procedure, where the patient is implanted with someone else’s tissues and there are chances of rejection, we use the patient’s own stem cells. As a result, there is no rejection. Basically, the patient is regenerating his own tissues.”
 

Date created : 2013-08-28

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