Mon | Jun 26, 2017

Researchers discover how to mass produce artificial blood

Published:Wednesday | March 29, 2017 | 3:00 AM
Researchers discover how to mass produce artificial blood

Researchers from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and NHS Blood and Transplant have discovered a way to mass-produce red blood cells in the lab, which could potentially allow hospitals and clinics to have an unlimited supply of blood donations.

A single bag of blood can contain a trillion red blood cells, and organisations like the American Red Cross, which is responsible for about 40 per cent of the nation's donated blood supply, often face shortages.

Shortages are expected to become more frequent in the coming years as populations increase and people live longer.

Previous approaches of producing red blood cells in the lab involved growing donated stem cells directly into mature red blood cells, but this technique has its limitations. Each cell can only produce about 50,000 red blood cells at a time, and requires repeat donations.

But the Bristol team found that they could 'immortalise' stem cells at an early stage, allowing them to grow indefinitely.

"These premature red cells can be cultured indefinitely, allowing larger-scale production, before being differentiated into mature red blood cells," stated a press release on the findings, which were published earlier this month in Nature Communications.

STILL YEARS AWAY

However, the technique needs to be tested in clinical trials, and large-scale manufacturing of the cells is still years away. The biggest challenge is to find a way to drive down the cost of production, which is currently much more expensive than traditional blood donations.

The first trial is expected to begin by the end of 2017, and will use manufactured red cells from stem cells in a normal blood donation.

If proven successful, the cultured cells will first be used in patients with rare blood types who have trouble finding matches.

Another significant benefit to cultured red blood cells is that they have a reduced risk of infectious disease transmission.

"The patients who stand to potentially benefit most are those with complex and life-limiting conditions like sickle cell disease and thalassemia, which can require multiple transfusions of well-matched blood. The intention is not to replace blood donation but provide specialist treatment for specific patient groups," said Dave Anstee, director at the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit.