While the stem cell debate continues internationally, several service providers for stem cell banking and therapy have cropped up in India in the last few years.
To understand the prospects of the treatment and the business, we caught up with Abhijit Bopardikar of ReeLabs. ReeLabs is a brainchild of, and has been completely funded by Sunil Pophale, an IITian and the promoter of now listed, Fem Care Pharma Pvt. Ltd., Dr. Abhijit Bopardikar and Dr. Rohit R. Kulkarni, both of whom have, previously established a chain of blood banks and pathology diagnostic centers across Mumbai. Excerpts:
YS: Abhijit, tell us a little about stem cell banking.
Stem Cells are the fountainhead of all mature cells in the body. They retain the ability to self-renew and differentiate into variety of different tissues and when placed in the appropriate micro-environment, they can potentially open up new vistas in the field of regenerative medicine.
Banking the stem cells are recommended since chances of obtaining a matched sample from a public bank is firstly, extremely difficult and secondly it comes at a prohibitive cost.
There are different sources of banking the stem cells, primary one being from the reproductive stage where the residual stem cells left in the umbilical cord, cord blood, amniotic fluids and amniotic sac and these can be banked at the time of birth. The other sources are dental pulp, menstrual fluids, bone marrow etc.
The storage is usually done for 21 years but the duration can be extended.
YS: What was the genesis of ReeLabs?
The concept of ReeLabs came to us about 6 years back, when Rohit and me started researching on the subject. We travelled to USA and South Africa to study the possibilities of stem cell application. At that time, there were no solutions in the field of stem cell application for treating ‘No Hope Disorders’, where today stem cells can be of immense use.
Around that time, our chief promoter and managing director Mr. Sunil Phopale had just exited Fem Care Pharma, after successfully monetizing his stake and was looking for some exciting and futuristic avenue to engage in. Thats how the company was formed in 2009. We started with stem cell therapy as the primary focus, and soon forayed into stem cell banking, as a natural backward integration.
Subsequently, we have also entered in the field of preventive health care with Nutraceutical range of products under the brand name ReeVeda.
YS: Stem Cell therapy is going through a huge debate internationally. How aware are people of the therapy itself and this debate? Does it make them sceptical?
Yes, the industry is in a growth phase and the regulatory norms are still evolving. The concept is new and there is a very serious lack of awareness among masses as well as the medical fraternity.
This has been a big challenge. However, we are working to make people aware of the uses of stem cells. Currently, there are over 37 disorders which can be treated using stem cells and more joining the list on a continual basis as the research progresses. These contain several neuro-degenerative disorders, bone and cartilage related disorders and almost all organ related disorders. Stem cells have also shown their potential in the field of cosmetics such as hair growth, anti ageing and the like.
In nutraceuticals, we have a range of products, which are recommended for all preventive healthcare, including for prevention of cataract, for weight management, for fortifying immunity etc.
YS: How much does the cell banking cost?
The price ranges from INR 75,000 to 85,000 for storage for 21 years.
YS: What would you say are your core competencies? What makes you unique?
ReeLabs is the only firm which processes and stores stem cells from all possible sources and uses it for therapy. We’ve had cases where the stored samples have been retrieved and used for therapy of family members. Other market players are merely storing cord and cord blood stem cells. No other company is into stem cell therapy.
We are also the first company to file for patents in over 15 disorders for stem cell application.
YS: How has the growth trajectory been in the last 4 years?
In last 4 years company has grown many-fold at a very rapid pace. We have done over 2000 sample storage so far and have gone national recently. Our operations are now spread over 12 states in the country with further expansion plans. Today the company employs over 200 employees, in various functions. While the current capacity is to store over 10,000 samples, we are coming up with a stem cell therapy centre in Mumbai with storage capacity of 1,00,000 samples.
YS: Give us a sense of the market. What is your vision for ReeLabs, going forward?
We being the only key player in the segment with end to end storage to therapy solution, the market is way beyond what we can reach with our current size. Hence, the growth trajectory is likely to remain steep. The key focus is the outreach program for awareness. The company has tied up with over 50 hospitals across country for stem cell therapy and banking. We work on a flawless brand experience with serious focus on customer satisfaction. We are using advertising in relevant media, exhibitions, joint awareness campaigns to reach out to the market.
While cell banking space is getting crowded with several players such as Helion backed, Lifecell and Stemone Biologicals, who also provide stem cell therapy, the availability of a huge untapped market, constantly evolving research, that seems to be ‘settling the debate’ in favour of stem cell therapy, gives ReeLabs enough potential for growth, particularly in the next few years.
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