The UK researchers have announced that blood from a laboratory was given to patients in a groundbreaking clinical trial.

For testing purposes, very small amounts of the drug are being taken, equivalent to just a few spoonfuls.

Blood transfusions will continue to rely heavily on donors.

However, the ultimate goal of this project is to produce rare, but vital blood groups that are extremely difficult to find.

These are required for those who require regular blood transfusions due to conditions such as sickle-cell anemia.

If the blood does not match the tissue, the body may reject it. This tissue-matching extends beyond the familiar A, B and AB blood groups.

Professor Ashley Toye of the University of Bristol stated that certain groups were “really and really rare” so there may only be 10 people in the nation who are able to donate.

Only three units of “Bombay,” the first blood group to be identified in India, are currently in stock in the UK.

Image source, NHSBT
Image caption: Laboratory-grown red blood cells, which carry oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the body.

The project involves teams at NHS Blood and Transplant, London, Bristol and Cambridge. It focuses specifically on the red blood cell that carries oxygen from the lungs to other parts of the body.

  • They begin with a normal donation of one pint of blood (around 475ml).
  • To extract flexible stem cells, magnetic beads can be used to catch them.
  • These stem cells are encouraged in the laboratory to grow in large numbers.
  • Then, they are guided to become red blood cell.

The entire process takes around three weeks. An initial pool of approximately half a billion stem cells yields 50 billion red blood cell.

These cells are then separated to find around 15 million red blood cells at the appropriate stage of development for transplant.

Prof Toye explained to me that they want to make as many blood donations as possible in the future.

Image source, NHSBT

The trial has already begun with two participants. It aims to test the blood of at least 10 healthy volunteers. They will be given two 5-10ml donations at least 4 months apart: one of normal blood, and one of lab grown blood.

A radioactive substance has been used to tag blood so scientists can determine how long it remains in the body.

It is hoped that lab-grown blood will have a higher level of potency than normal.

Red blood cells usually last around 120 days before they have to be replaced. A blood donation typically contains a mix between old and young blood cells. However, lab-grown blood is completely fresh and should last 120 days. This could lead to smaller or less frequent donations, according to the researchers.

However, there are significant financial and technological obstacles.

The NHS charges around PS130 for an average blood donation. While the team won’t say how much, it will cost a lot more to grow blood.

The other challenge is that stem cells are eventually exhausted. This limits the ability to grow blood. More research is required to produce the clinically-relevant volumes.

Dr Farrukh Shah (medical director of transfusion at NHS Blood and Transplant) said: “This world-leading work lays the foundation for the manufacturing of red blood cell that can safely be used in transfusions to people with sickle cells.

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