By DENISE MAYCOCK
Tribune Freeport Reporter
THE Global Regenera Conference opened in Freeport on Friday at the Grand Lucayan Resort, bringing many experts in the field of regenerative medicine to Grand Bahama to discuss the latest advancement in technology and research in stem cell therapy.
Minister for Grand Bahama, Dr Michael Darville, said the government has moved forward with a bold and aggressive plan to market the island as a prime destination for medical tourism.
He noted that the multi-million dollar Okyanos Cell Therapy and Research Center in Freeport has treated hundreds of patients at its facility.
The government, he said, is working with the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) to attract further foreign direct investment in stem cell research and treatment.
“I firmly believe that we have the ability to attract scientists and medical practitioners to live and establish research institutions, medical centres and health care facilities on Grand Bahama which will fuel the growth of our economy through medical tourism,” he added.
Dr Darville said that the implementation of adult stem cell research in the Bahamas has been described as the “opening of the floodgates to a cutting edge technique with serious medical tourism potential”.
For this reason, he stressed that a collective decision was made by government to pursue and regulate the stem cell industry to reap its many benefits to the country and to Bahamians.
A national task force on stem cell therapy has been established to explore the positive and potential negative effects of the application to human life.
“Our findings confirmed that, with proper monitoring and regulations, the Bahamas through stem cell research and therapies would not only find itself on the cutting edge of science and technology, but this science would open doors to therapies that could treat and possibly cure many of the chronic debilitating diseases that current affect our local population,” said Dr Darville.
Moving on the topic of health care, the minister told of government’s commitment to bringing a system of National Health Insurance (NHI) for Bahamians.
He said government remains committed to bringing a competent system of universal health care which will better improve quality, ease the financial burden and better serve patients and families.
Dr Darville noted that in addition to the realisation of stem cell legislation in the last two years, the master planning for the first ever 62,000sqft Freeport Community Clinic, the first phase of a new 150-bed hospital will begin in a few months, and that government is closer to launching NHI.
“The legacy of this government will be the one that healed that Bahamas and revolutionised healthcare throughout the Commonwealth of the Bahamas,” he said.
Dr Desiree Cox, Consultant of Stem Cell Secretariat with the Ministry of Health, said since starting in January, 2015, they have reviewed six proposals for stem cell therapy and research. She said five were provisionally approved and one was deferred.
“We need to see you operating and functioning for at least a year before that moves onto a full approval, which means that provided you continue doing what you're doing, your approval won’t be rescinded,” she explained.
Dr Cox said that breach of the laws of the Bahamas around the stem cell industry carries a strict penalty, with violators liable to a fine of $250,000 or three to 10 years imprisonment, or both.
“We take that very seriously," she said. "No approval is permanent. Even if you’ve been operating for many years on full approval that can still be taken away if you start to breach the laws,” she said.
“So we tell people a provisional approval does not mean that there is something you can’t do; it means you have been approved provided you follow the conditions, and each proposal will have certain conditions,” she explained.
Dr Cox said that everyone should have have a Medivac Plan submitted before they operate. She also noted that they must have a patient registry in an electronic medical record. “So, before you start, you need to have an IT person on your team, that’s standard, and you must also be in compliance with standards of stem cell standard policy of the country.”
Dr Cox said the focus is on safety, efficacy and innovation, as mentioned in the Act. She said the Stem Cell Secretariat was established as a framework to make the legislation real.
She said the first National Stem Cell Ethics Committee meets every six months in January or June to go through a number of applications.
“The law requires we have a blend of international and local opinion leaders. It speaks to the fact that we must have and do have international leaders who has specific expertise in stem cell industry,” explained Dr Cox.
In March, she said the Bahamas created a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Miami to be a resource partner for education and training, for quality compliance, standardisation and a whole range of things as the need evolved.
Ian Rolle, the GBPA president, and Luis Martinez, MD, of Global Regenera, brought opening remarks. The conference is being held under the theme "Regenerative Medicine 2.0: Redefining the Practice".
Among the speakers were Thomas Gonwa, MD, who spoke on the topic, 'The Mayo Clinic's Approach to Regenerative Medicine in 21st Century', and Dr Michael Fossel, MD, who spoke on 'Telomerase Therapeutics: curing age-related disease and resetting cell aging'.