Stem Cells in Iran

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It has been more than a decade that stem cell centers have begun their activities in Iran to conduct scientific experiments and offer cutting-edge medical services; among them infertility treatment.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

On screen: The imposition of political and economic blockade on Iran began in 1980.The blockade became more and more severe but all in vain.Iran has managed to survive the blockade for more than three decades.

Narration: Some decades ago, nations were either with or against the West. In the late 1970s, Iran was on the cusp of a revolution and the whole world was looking at the country with searching eyes to see if the nation’s efforts for national sovereignty would pay off. Iran’s resistance was in line with anti-Western policies; the question was if the economic sanctions on Iran could hamper the country’s economic and industrial development; or on the contrary, whether those sanctions would galvanize the nation into action and union so as to lay the foundation of an independent economy. Against such a backdrop, I decided to make a trip to Iran to find an answer for the above questions; to gauge the effects of Western sanctions on Iran, its economy and its people over the past three decades and since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “Welcome to Isfahan. This beautiful city is in fact the embodiment of Iranian-Islamic civilization. Tomorrow, I’m going to visit Royan Institute, an institute for stem cell researches. Tomorrow, we’ll get to know more about this groundbreaking field of science and technology. We’re going to meet some people there working on a cloning project. Stay with us.”

Narration: The first person I met in Royan Institute was Dr. Mohammad Hussein Nasr Esfahani, the head of the biotechnology department. He was in fact in charge of technical programs about living animals in the institute. Dr. Nasr was a graduate of the University of Cambridge in fetal medicine. I asked him to tell us more about the biotechnological activities that institute has been engaged so far.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “Dr. Nasr Esfahani, we visited different parts of the institute. Would you tell us more about the institute and its achievements?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hussein Nasr Esfahani, Head of Biotechnology Department, Royan Institute: “In this institute, we are pursuing two purposes: first, to train human resources; that is to train young graduates who want to pursue their academic careers by teaching them research techniques and methods, as well as the way of thinking; they go to other universities and carry out their research there successfully. The next thing is that we are trying to give depth to our researches; that is to turn them into technology. I think that man has this capability to achieve everything he thinks about or to solve every problem he faces. For instance, once we didn’t know what a genetic disease was but today we can know the gender of a fetus and know whether a fetus has anemia or not. Today we can provide a woman with a chance to have a natural pregnancy. So we can somehow eradicate infertility in society.”

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “What have you achieved so far and to what level of knowledge have you advanced in Iran?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hussein Nasr Esfahani, Head of Biotechnology Department, Royan Institute: “As you may know, we for instance did cloning for the first time in the Middle East. Even a developed country like India hadn’t cloned an animal when we did. We produced the first transgenic animals in the Middle East; that’s while some developed countries in Europe still don’t have the technology. I daresay that in treating infertility, not only we have been moving shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world, but also we have had new ideas and proposed new methods.”

Narration: Doctor Nasr said that the institute’s methods for treating male and female infertility have proved effective; the institute has helped many young couples have their own child. Doctor Nasr answered many of my questions that have had remained unanswered for a long time.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hussein Nasr Esfahani, Head of Biotechnology Department, Royan Institute: “The West has been trying to tell us that we are the “third world”. I want to say that with scientific events that have happened over the past years in our country and the abilities our young people have shown, I never ever consider myself to belong to the third world. I daresay that we have many to say in different fields including cloning and stem cells. Royan Institute has shown how able it is in this regard.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “What do you think of those countries that import knowledge from abroad and don’t try to get it themselves? And another question how did you reached this level of making knowledge?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mohammad Hussein Nasr Esfahani, Head of Biotechnology Department, Royan Institute: “I don’t guess that there is a researcher in the world that wants to confine their knowledge to themselves, their cities or their countries. Knowledge is what God bestows us with and it should be shared with all humanity. Definitely, in helping our neighbors, the one that is closest to us is given priority to others. We hope that with the research we are doing we will be able to help many of our neighboring countries. Our development must lead to the development of our neighbors. If our neighbors make progress, it means that we also have to make progress, which in the end leads to the progress of our entire society. Therefore, cooperating with our neighboring countries, enhancing their sanitary conditions, enhancing their scientific level, in my opinion, will lead to the increase in our own scientific level.”

Narration: I asked doctor about their relations with other centers in the region and with other Muslim countries. I also asked him if research centers in those countries can benefit from the institute’s experiences. The answers he gave were precise making me think about them deeply. Doctor allowed us to visit the fetal laboratory in order to get more familiar with the institute’s activities about genetic engineering, fetal studies and treating infertility.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “Cloning is one of the most important modern sciences and among the most advanced ones because it has the ability to create a living being. This modern science is also used in treating diseases like genetic defects and hereditary problems. Today, we are going to meet Doctor Hajian who will tell us more about this field and its developments. Nice to meet you, Doctor Hajian …”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mehdi Hajian, Researcher at Royan Institute: “Hi there, welcome!The department we are in is the embryology department in Royan Institute. The main thing we do here is cloning and trying to produce transgenic animals in order to have recombinant proteins. For this purpose, we receive some samples from an abattoir on a daily basis and you can see the samples over there. During a process, we take the ova from the ovaries that we receive from the abattoir.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

Narration: As for the genetic engineering activities at Royan Institute, Dr. Hajian went on that part of their focus is on designing genetic changes so as the cloned creatures carry genetic make-ups different from the genetic make-ups of natural creatures.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Mehdi Hajian, Researcher at Royan Institute: “One of the main things being done at the institute and in this department in particular is in fact cloning animals. The aim is to have animals that are transgenic, that is animals with a certain gene in their genetic make-ups that we look for. After the cloned animals are born, they can produce our desired proteins in their milk. These proteins can be later used as medicine.”

Narration: Doctor Hajian explained the significance of genetic engineering in serving the Iranian people. He asked me to meet one of their researchers in order to catch up with the latest

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “Dr. Yahya Khazaei, you are an expert in recombinant protein. Would you explain more about this?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Yahya Khazaei, Researcher at Royan Institute: “The recombinant protein is extracted from a living being. This living being can be bacteria, a cell or even a complete being. In order to produce these proteins, you must have the knowledge of producing the DNA that can produce a certain protein. It demands a set of equipment. So first of all, you must be able to manipulate the DNA. Then based on your need that living being which produce the protein – whether a bacteria or a complete being - can be turned into a milk factory from which you can order your desired protein.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “What is your main aim in this regard?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Yahya Khazaei, Researcher at Royan Institute: “The knowledge of cloning, the cloning of mammalian creatures that produce milk is a knowledge that per se would provide us with an infrastructure to have recombinant proteins in their bodies. Currently, there is a drug that can dissolve blood clots …”

Narration: Dr. Khazaei explain that with making some changes in cellular make-ups, adding tissue plasminogen activator and modifying blood clotting degrees, among other things, we can produce a living being that can carry tissue plasminogen activator in its gene; this way we can treat blood clotting. Thanks to this drug at different levels, Dr. Khazaei, we can treat different strokes caused as a result of blood clotting. For instance, after having a stroke, the patient used to be kept in the ICU for a long time but nowadays after producing the tissue plasminogen activator which plays a vital role in dissolving blood clots, the patient can be discharged from the hospital sooner. The medicine can help the patient make a recovery in a shorter period of time and therefore reduce the hospital bills. In addition, the patient would be able to come back to work after being released from hospital.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “Have sanctions increased over the past few months? If so, have they had negative impacts on your activities?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Yahya Khazaei, Researcher at Royan Institute: “Look, things have become a bit difficult; there is no doubt about it. For instance, we need some materials for the laboratory so as to carry out our experiments. Their prices have gone up and the time of delivery has become longer. But thank God, with perseverance we can overcome any problem. Anyway, if a country wants to be independent and does not want to be dependent on foreigners, it itself should produce the cells, the microbes, the bacterium and the living beings. Therefore, nothing has brought our activities to a halt. As before, we are thinking about bigger projects and long-term goals; we are striving for them and we are sure that if we persist, we will succeed as we succeeded in reaching our past goals.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “Thank you very much for being with us. These are eight cloned goats. They are in a way one goat and are absolutely identical to each other. I have a great feeling for being here; I’m very happy indeed.”

Narration: Then we went to see Doctor Khadijeh Karbalaei. She was an expert at Royan Institute. I asked her to tell us about stem cells in a simple way.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khadijeh Karbalaei, Researcher at Royan Institute: “A stem cell is a cell that has the capability to turn into all other kinds of cells. The fact that a cell is capable of becoming a heart cell, a nerve cell or a muscle cell is what we mean by a stem cell.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “I also want to know what has been done in this lab.”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khadijeh Karbalaei, Researcher at Royan Institute: “What we expect from stem cells has to do with what I just said about them. If a stem cell is capable of becoming a heart cell or a muscle cell, you can replace your own muscle cells with them if necessary. Suppose a person whose muscle cells have been damaged, how can we get their muscle cells recovered? One way is to use stem cells and turn them into muscle cells and replace the damaged cells with them.”

Narration: Dr. Karbalei explained that one of the benefits of stem cell researches is to make sure about the effects and side-effects of drugs on human bodies without directly applying those drugs on animals or human beings. Then, she briefed us on the progress Iran had made in that regard, giving us more information about the history of this field of science.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “What are you pursuing for now and for the future?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Khadijeh Karbalaei, Researcher at Royan Institute: “Mr. Thomson managed to derive the first human embryonic stem cell in 1998, that is about 15 years ago. So, now it’s about 15 years that the whole world is working on stem cells. It’s interesting to know that in the year 2011 a project was developed to use neural stem-progenitor cells in treating spinal cord injuries. Starting in 1998, they have reached a point where after 15 years they can carry out such treatments. As for us, we began our research on stem cells in 2005 and this institute alone has published about 30 articles in international journals with best marks. This shows that though we began in 2005, we are not much behind those who began in 1998. That’s while, our equipment and materials are not comparable with theirs. In this regard, they are much ahead of us. I think that Iranian scientists and students, including our peers have worked well in this field; they have worked with their heart and soul. And now Iran has something to say about stem cells across the world.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “Thank you Doctor Karbalaei, I wish you well in your work.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “Research in Iran demands great efforts; there are many differences between what I’ve heard from the media and what I see with my own eyes. Things have gained momentum in comparison to the early years after the Islamic Revolution. What I’m trying to get is the real image of Iran.”

Narration: As I was travelling across the country, I run into Sa’adat Company, a company that produces health care machines. I met the company’s executive manager, Doctor Yaghoubzadeh. I asked him to tell us about the history of the company and its main field of activity.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alireza Yaghoubzadeh, CEO at Saadat CO.: “Our company was founded 14 years ago. We received European Standards in 2001. All our products are being designed and manufactured according to European Standards. The company’s main product is the vital signs monitor which is used in different parts of hospital like the operating room, the recovery room, the CCU, the ICU, the emergency room and recently in the ambulance etc. The machine shows the vital signs of the patient who is either in comma or in a condition that cannot tell about their vital signs.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “For how many years are these monitors being made in Iran?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alireza Yaghoubzadeh, CEO at Saadat CO.: “These monitors are basically designed by Iranian engineers. Our company has 210 personnel. There are more than 50 engineers in its R & D. More than 100 of them have higher education. In other word, our company has one of the most powerful R & D. All main components of the machine are designed here. Since about three years ago we - like all other overseas companies - began to supply some general components from ordinary sources.”

Narration: Mr. Yaghoubzadeh went on talking about economic sanctions against Iran. He said that as sanctions began more severe against the country, they decided to manufacture many components they used to import from Europe.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alireza Yaghoubzadeh, CEO at Saadat CO.: “They are made in Iran by our own engineers. Of seven modules only one is imported from abroad and the rest are designed and made in Iran. The machine’s motherboard and main software are made and designed in our company.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Nour al- Hoda Bahri, Host of Program: “How did you managed to overcome economic sanctions?”

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alireza Yaghoubzadeh, CEO at Saadat CO.: “We tried to solve technological problems; in this regard, we even made a machine that its patent has been filed in America. We have also offered a new idea about the vital signs monitors and it’s gradually being operational in Iran; it’s a new model of monitoring. This was a problem and we managed to solve it. Likewise, sanction is a problem and it can be solved. As can be solved production problems provided that we believe that we can solve these problems. Instead of brushing aside the problems, we must accept that there are problems that must be solved. All problems are the same in one way or another; be it related to design, production or sanction. As for sanctions, we decided to find a way out from them. And we succeeded in this regard. Under the most difficult circumstances caused by the sanctions, we exported more than fifty percent of our products to Europe. Perhaps, two decades ago, it was hard to believe that we could manufacture an electronic machine inside the country and above that import it to Germany. Today, German experts come to Iran for training how to service the machine we have made. What we once couldn’t imagine has happened now. And this is something that is happening regularly for many of our products. As for the products of other companies inside the country, the same thing is gradually happening.”

Narration: What I found very interesting was the fact that although the machines made in in the company were highly sophisticated, they were manufactured in a simple assembly line and with simple tools. But there must be something behind this simple place that can yield to these hi-tech products.

SOUNDBITE [Persian] Alireza Yaghoubzadeh, CEO at Saadat CO.: “We have shown that we can. We have shown that we can make the impossible possible. We have proved that we can export electronic technology to Canada and the US.”

Narration: It’s easy to see the national will in the country to get rid of sanctions and their consequences with an accent on the national sovereignty and national production. It might take a long time for all these efforts to pay off but the final result which is the country’s complete independence is worth the effort. Everyone will benefit from the final result and national solidarity will certainly be realized.


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