Blood is always in high demand, and with more than 30 million blood transfusions performed every year in the United States alone, it is understandable why having a hefty supply of fresh blood is so important. However, at times, there are blood shortages, but that may soon be a thing of the past because factory-made blood has been approved for human trials.
Manufactured blood is part of a long-term research program that was funded by the Wellcome Trust. A Strategic Award in the amount of £5 million was given to a consortium that includes the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow, Loughborough University, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, NHS Blood and Transplant, the Cell Therapy Catapult, and Roslin Cells Ltd., in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and Bristol University. The consortium is led by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Services (SNBTS) and their work continues that of previous research which proved that red blood cells could be cultured from stem cells.
Factory-made blood is cultured by forcing adult cells back into a state called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These induced pluripotent stem cells are then able to form into any of the 200 tissues found within the human body. Researchers manipulate these cells into multiplying and becoming fresh red blood cells that can be used in humans. The process takes a month to complete.
Since factory-made blood has been approved for human trials, the first set of volunteers are set to begin receiving transfusions as early as 2016. This small control group suffers from Thalassemia, a disorder requiring regular blood transfusions as treatment, However, before clinical trials can begin, iPSCs will have to reach very high standards and be approved by regulatory authorities in the United Kingdom.
Marc Turner, the Medical Director and Principal Investigator at the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Services said, “Producing a cellular therapy with the correct quality and safety requirements” necessary for human trials will prove to be quite challenging. However, he believes clinical trials are a very important step in the right direction to ensure that people all over the world can benefit from blood transfusions.
There are numerous advantages to using factory-made blood instead of donor blood. Not only will all of the blood be the universal type of O negative, which will make the transfusion process a lot easier, but there will also be zero chance for the spread of blood born diseases, such as HIV, to the patients receiving the transfusions because all factory-made blood is free from disease. In addition, all of this blood will be fresh and will not become weakened by sitting on a shelf until needed. Typically, red blood cells have a life cycle of 120 days. Blood given by donors that is not used quickly will eventually not be useful and will go to waste, but that will not happen with factory-made blood.
Once researchers are able to achieve success during the human trials, they are hopeful they will be able to take the process of culturing iPSCs to a commercial manufacturing level. This will enable them to mass-produce factory-made blood, which, thus far, has proven to be a tricky process since each unit of blood literally contains a trillion blood cells. However, if successful, this could be a huge breakthrough toward saving lives worldwide, especially in times of crisis and disaster when huge quantities of blood are needed all at once.
Researchers are excited that factory-made blood has been approved for human trials. While these trials can take years to complete, and the process is still in its infancy, the initial steps have been taken and researchers are hopeful they will be successful.
By Donna W. Martin