In a ground-breaking trial, researchers in the UK will test artificial blood made from human stem cells in patients for the first time.
The research, planned for 2016, could pave the way for manufacturing of blood on an industrial scale, which could even supersede donated blood as the main supply for patients.
“We have made red blood cells, for the first time, that are fit to go in a person’s body. Before now, we haven’t really had that,” said Marc Turner, medical director at the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, who is leading the 5 million pounds project at the University of Edinburgh.
The trial will involve three patients with thalassaemia, a disorder of the red blood cells that requires regular transfusions. They will receive around 5 ml of blood initially to test whether the cells behave normally in the body. Turner stressed that the trial should not be taken as a signal for people to stop donating blood, but speculated that in 20 years, artificial blood could be the norm.
Turner has spent several years refining a technique to grow mature red blood cells from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – adult skin or blood cells that have been genetically reprogrammed into a stem cell-like state.
The iPS cells are cultured in biochemical conditions similar to those in the human body that trigger their transition towards mature red blood cells. The team has currently reached an efficiency of 40-50 per cent of initial cells turning into red blood cells, and the process takes about a month.
The useable cells can then be separated from immature blood cells and remaining iPS cells using standard blood separation methods, such as centrifuging.
Artificial blood would be made from cells taken from someone with the relatively rare universal blood type O-, which can be transfused into almost any patient, researchers said.