New blood

By | Science & Technology
The NHS may soon be using lab-grown blood to treat patients. Credit@Lori Greig

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has announced the first trial to give synthetic blood to human volunteers. Scientists are aiming to explore a number of ways to develop synthetic blood in the lab. One avenue may be to artificially produce blood substitutes that may be donated to any patient in need, regardless of blood type. Most recently, researchers have been working to grow human red blood cells in the lab. Their success may be evaluated within a couple of years as the NHS aims to provide the synthetic blood to a handful of volunteers to test its efficacy.

The trial, thought to be a world-first, aims to take place by 2017 where tiny volumes (equal to a few teaspoons) of lab-grown blood may be transfused into a small group of volunteers, while providing another group with donated blood as a control sample. The trial aims to provide scientists with information on how well the synthetic blood cells survive in the recipients and whether they produce any unexpected and challenging side effects in the body.

Researchers are reportedly planning to grow blood in the lab from stem cells. Previously, scientists have managed to grow red blood cells by taking stem cells from a volunteer’s bone marrow and treating them with a variety of chemical growth factors. While the precise method to be used for the NHS trial is far from clear, it may be likely that a similar approach may be used. There are also plans to investigate the use of blood from donated umbilical cords, which are rich in haematopoietic stem cells (the precursor cell to all the different types of blood cells).

Current belief among the scientific community is that the technique has a high probability of success, given that a number of studies performed in the recent past demonstrate how artificial blood cells behave like the real deal in human subjects. Previous studies indicate this may work. Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Ocata Therapeutics in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and his colleagues were the first to grow red blood cells in the lab back in 2008. Three years later, Luc Douay (at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, France),and his team carried out the first small transfusion of synthetic blood in the cells of human volunteers. The cells appeared to behave identically to normal cells and continued to circulate in the volunteers’ blood for more than a month afterwards.

Red blood cells. Credit@Wellcome Images

Red blood cells. Credit@Wellcome Images

The next challenge in the process seems to be scaling up the technology to produce a sufficient number of synthetic red blood cells for regular transfusion. For reference, 10 billion red blood cells are equal to approximately 2 millilitres of blood. Despite the challenge, the need for more life-saving, clean blood is a pressing health matter in the UK. Scientists believe the solution lies in developing alternative supplies, considering that blood donations are unable to meet the current demand. Furthermore, red blood cells made in the lab have the advantage of being free from viruses and bacteria, which means zero probability of transmitting HIV or hepatitis. Lab-grown blood appears to be an effective way of helping patients with rare blood types for which compatible donors are equally elusive.

“The intention is … to provide specialist treatment for specific patient groups,” says Dr. Nick Watkins, NHS Blood and Transplant Assistant Director of research and development. In the short-term, scientists are aiming to grow blood for specialised donations for patients with conditions such as sickle-cell anaemia who require regular transfusions. Eventually however, the NHS aims to produce possibly unlimited quantities of red blood cells for use when required.

What part of the human body might be next in line to be created synthetically in the lab?

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