In 1898, an outbreak of Bubonic plague struck the port of Santos in São Paulo, Brazil. A year later, a local bacteriological
institute set up a unit to produce anti-plague serum in a government-owned farm known as Butantan, renamed the Butantan Serumtherapy
Institute in 1901. The institute gained global recognition for research on animal venom, which led to the production of anti-venom.
In 1915, the institute was renamed Butantan Institute. Known as Butantan, the institute currently conducts technical and scientific
activities in the production of serum and biomedical research.
The institute claims to be Latin America's biggest vaccine producer, with an output of more than 300 million doses every year.
Today, Butantan is considered a major contributor to Brazil's public health, having approximately 1700 staff members, including
180 scientific researchers specializing in innovation. "I believe Butantan Institute is an important partner to [Brazil's
pharma] companies as 80% of all vaccines used in Brazil are produced by this institute," says Irina Kerkis, director of the
genetics laboratory at Butantan Institute. Despite its struggles in a globally competitive market, the institute reaches for
innovation while balancing research and production according to its researchers.
Butantan has developed research capabilities at its genetics laboratory, including the expertise to retrieve stem cells from
milk teeth. Nelson Foresto Lizier, a scientific researcher working at Butantan's genetics laboratory, says that this project
is vital given that stem cells have the ability to generate almost any human cell. The study, considered the first of its
kind in Brazil, is being developed with "100% Brazilian technology" according to Lizier.
The development of the technology started in 2004. It was initially privately funded; however, six years later, investment
from major public agencies began pouring in according to Kerkis.
Private pharmaceutical companies in Brazil acknowledge the importance of stem-cell research. "Butantan and the national pharmaceutical
industry are major partners and the institute is willing to develop research studies together with the private sector," says
Henrique Uchió Tada, executive technical director for the National Pharmaceutical Laboratories Association (Alanac).
According to Tada, the various potential benefits and applications of the stem-cell project include treatments for diabetes,
heart illnesses, liver problems, multiple sclerosis, brain lesions, Parkinson disease, inflammatory diseases, and the recovery
of human skin and organs. "However, the development of related pharma products is still a little far away for the national
pharmaceutical industry," he adds. Tada explains that stem-cell studies conducted by national pharmaceutical laboratories
focus on a type of treatment that is not considered traditional. He says that treatment is obtained through the retrieval
of stem cells from the individual's body and not through a synthetic drug applied for treating an entire population with the
exact same illness or disease.
Several bioethics experts in Brazil believe that there may be a gap between the pharmaceutical industry and stem-cell treatments.
The future might not require the use of drugs as we know them, they say. For example, patients would be able to use their
own cells to cure diseases, and as a result, the pharmaceutical industry would be affected because of profit loss from the
steep drop in sales. Tada, however, believes that pharmaceutical firms could benefit from stem-cell advances if they develop
a method that makes use of stem cells in treatment procedures.
According to both Kerkis and Lizier, the pharmaceutical industry has shown great interest in stem-cell research because of
its potential as "biotools" for developing and testing new products. "The development of new drugs through the study of stem
cells could become a reality by conjoining findings from pharmacology and cellular biology studies as the variety of substances
produced by cultured stem cells could open new doors for pharmacology in general," says Kerkis, whose statement was supported
Butantan's stem-cell research
Embryonic stem cells, obtained by a special technique developed by Butantan researchers, are already being tested in humans.
According to the institute, results from these clinical studies, which involve reconstruction of the tissue that covers the
human eye cornea for example, are expected to be reported during the second half of 2013. Butantan's biggest finding is that,
through the method developed, it is possible to obtain sufficient quantities of cells to be applied in humans. According to
Lizier, one of the advantages of working with stem cells from milk teeth is that these teeth are biological materials that
are generally discarded and children have an average of 20 milk teeth that are changed during their lifetime. Moreover, the
extraction of the internal material from the teeth is simple and not as painful when compared with other techniques. With
the method developed at Butantan, it is possible to obtain cells that are considered immature compared with other populations
of adult stem cells found in other tissues. According to Lizier, the technique uses cells that are similar to embryonic cells,
but without the bioethics issues involved or the possibilities of inducing tumor growth during treatments. Using Butantan's
technology, researchers can retrieve approximately 100 billion cells from a small fragment of dental pulp. "The figure is
big enough for treating up to 100 patients," says Lizier.
Butantan has scientific proof that stem cells from milk teeth could play an important and safe role in treatments involving
bone, cartilage, muscle, and neural tissue regeneration as well as in therapies for immune and metabolic disorders and dentistry.
As the research develops, other applications of the institute's technology could prove useful in the near future.
— Hellen Berger is a business writer based in São Paulo, Brazil.