A team of scientists from the University of Bristol and NHS Blood and Transplant announced a recent breakthrough that makes it possible to mass produce red blood cells. Published in scientific journal Nature, this newly discovered stem cell technique opens the door for the future wide-scale use of manufactured blood. It could be particularly useful for people with rare blood groups, which are difficult to match with the existing pool of donated blood.
Manufacturing red blood cells in the lab is a proven technique, but the yield is often low. Using existing cell culture methods, each laboratory-harvested stem cell is capable of producing up to 50,000 red blood cells before it expires. This is a drop in the bucket compared to a bag of blood which contains a trillion red blood cells.
This newly developed technique captures the stem cells at an early stage when they are multiplying rapidly. Scientists were able to induce these early stem cells to make red blood cells at an incredible rate. “We have demonstrated a feasible way to sustainably manufacture red cells for clinical use,” said researcher Dr Jan Frayne to the BBC. “We’ve grown liters of it.”
The researchers may have discovered a biological key that opens the door to mass producing red blood cells, but that is only part of the equation. They also have to figure out how to industrialize the process, so it’s cost-effective and yields a suitable product. Researchers plan to conduct safety trials of the lab-grown blood later this year.
Besides safety, cost also may be a hindrance to the use of cultured red blood cells in the general population. The manufactured red blood cells will be much more expensive to use than the donated cells. NHS Blood and Transplant confirms they have no plans to stop using donated blood despite this breakthrough. This manufactured blood instead may be reserved for recipients whose blood types make it difficult to match with a donor.