Although donations have increased in number over the past decade, the world is still in short supply of life-saving, clean blood. So if a higher number of donations is not fixing the problem, scientists need to find another solution to keep up with the demand. One possibility scientists are exploring is the use of synthetic blood substitutes, which, if successful, could potentially be given to any patient in need, regardless of blood type.
Another, less artificial approach could be to grow stocks of human red blood cells in the lab, and we should know whether this works in just a few years as the first clinical trial investigating their potential has just been announced.
According to the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), the trial will take place by 2017 and will involve transfusing tiny amounts, just a few teaspoons, of lab-grown blood into one group of volunteers, while providing another group with donated blood for comparison. This should inform scientists about the survivability of the cells in the recipients and whether they cause any adverse reactions in the body. Scientists are hopeful that the technique will work, as a study conducted a few years back demonstrated that such cells are capable of behaving like the real thing in human subjects, notes New Scientist.
Although the precise technique NHS scientists will use to grow these cells isn’t clear at this stage, it has been reported that they intend to start off with stem cells taken from the bone marrow of adult donors and then encourage them to turn into red blood cells using a cocktail of growth-stimulating chemicals. If successful, they plan to investigate another method which would use the same starting cells, called hematopoietic stem cells, but instead source these from donated umbilical cords.
Earlier work has demonstrated that both of these sources can be used to create functional red blood cells in the lab, but the problem scientists currently face is one of scaling. At the moment, researchers struggle to make more than a few teaspoons worth, which isn’t enough for a transfusion. However, as The Independent points out, this could be sufficient to help treat individuals with certain blood conditions, like sickle-cell anemia, which is the NHS’ goal.
“The intention is not to replace blood donation but to provide specialist treatment for specific patient groups,” says Dr Nick Watkins, NHS Blood and Transplant Assistant Director of research and development.