Not nearly enough blood is being donated to meet the growing demand, leading to shortages that prevent lives from being saved.
This is a huge problem for medical providers and patients. But new research from the University of Bristol and the U.K.’s National Health Service offers hope with a medical breakthrough that could one day revolutionize the blood transfusion process.
While scientists had previously created artificial red blood cells in the lab, this is the first time that they were able to create large quantities of artificial blood in the lab.
In the study, published March 14 in the journal Nature Communications, the team of British scientists outline their technique for producing a potentially unlimited supply of artificial blood. This means of creating blood could be particularly useful for helping people with extremely rare blood types, the study’s authors note.
At this stage, artificial blood is still a far more costly and cumbersome method of acquiring blood than standard blood donation. But with further work, the new method could one day be used alongside blood donation in hospitals around the world.
“Globally, there is a need for an alternative red cell product,” Dr. Jan Fraye, a biochemist at the university and one of the study’s authors, said in a university statement released Friday. “Cultured red blood cells have advantages over donor blood, such as reduced risk of infectious disease transmission.”
The new technique is a clear departure from the existing method of artificially producing blood, which involves the use of specialized stem cells that generate red blood cells. The problem with the existing approach is that each stem cell can only produce up to 50,000 red blood cells, after which point it exhausts itself. To put that in perspective, a single bag of blood contains roughly 1 trillion red blood cells.
Using their new method, the team of scientists was able to arrest development of the stem cells at an early stage during which they multiply indefinitely. When the stem cells are in this multiplying stage, the scientists can trigger them to become red blood cells.
Scientists refer to this process as making the cells “immortal,” BBC Health reported.
The technique could one day be used to sustainably create blood for use among patients in need, but widespread use in clinical settings could be some years away. The Bristol team only produced several bags of blood ― not nearly enough blood to supply even a single hospital.
But now that we have the ability to produce large quantity of blood cells, the next step is to build the technology to enable mass production of stem cell-based blood.
It could be years before this technology is in good enough shape to be used as an alternative to traditional blood donation, particularly for people with rare blood types.
Once that technology is in place, this new method of producing blood could allow hospitals to keep supplies of rare blood on hand to use as needed ― a development with the potential to save many lives. It can be incredibly difficult for hospitals to find a match for people with extremely rare blood types, particularly in emergency situations when donations are urgently needed.
“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,” Dr. Dave Anstee, director of the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit at Bristol and NHS, said in the press release. “The intention is not to replace blood donation but provide specialist treatment for specific patient groups.”
The future of artificial blood and organs may be closer than we thought. The innovation in blood production comes on the heels of another major medical breakthrough. This January, scientists at the Salk Institute in California successfully created a hybrid human-pig embryo for the first time, taking a major step towards lab-grown organs.