An important medical breakthrough occurred last week when Marc Turner, Medical Director at the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service announced, “We have made red blood cells that are fit to go into a person’s body.”
To create the artificial red blood cells, scientists used adult stem cells that were genetically rewound to become induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. The iPS cells were cultured for a month in the laboratory, allowing over half to become red blood cells. The artificial blood was then separated from other cells. The 8 million dollar project is being funded by the Wellcome Trust.
The biggest advantage to the lab grown cells is that all blood produced is Type O negative, and can be transfused to anyone, regardless of blood type. Type O negative is the highest type requested by hospitals, but it is usually in the shortest supply. The ability to manufacture new blood has far-reaching benefits, particularly when you consider the man-made blood is free from HIV and Hepatitis C. Both spread in the past through blood transfusions before blood screening was readily available.
In addition to being disease-free, the transfusion of lab-grown blood means the recipient will receive, essentially, fresh cells. Donated blood has a 120 day shelf life and recipients never know where the donated blood is in that life cycle. With lab-grown blood, cells can be used at the start of their life span.
While this is certainly exciting news for the future of our world blood supply, don’t expect to see blood factories popping up in industrial neighborhoods any time soon. The cells grown in this experiment were done on a very small scale. “It’s one thing to bake a cake and another thing to bake a cake 100 times the size,” said Turner. “It’s not just a matter of putting in 100 times the ingredients.”
Clinical trials are scheduled to begin in 2016. The first patients to receive the lab-grown blood will be those suffering from thalassaemia, a genetic disorder causing the person to make less hemoglobin, requiring frequent transfusions. Human trials will take place in the UK, under the guidance of the Wellcome Trust.