A team of researchers in the U.K. has conducted human trials for lab-grown blood for the first time ever. This potentially game-changing medical breakthrough could help combat rare blood disorders.
The science and other stuff to know
The rarest blood types go far beyond conventional blood groups, such as A, B, AB, and O. Some, such as the “Bombay,” are exceedingly rare, but vital in many transfusions. To help solve the scarcity of such rare blood groups, researchers developed a medical tech that could help grow artificial blood in a lab, according to a press release.
In a clinical trial named RESTORE (REcovery and survival of STem cell Originated REd cells), which is a joint research initiative by NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) and the University of Bristol, researchers transfused red blood cells grown in a lab to two volunteers in the U.K. in a world first.
To grow blood in the lab, researchers mixed magnetic beads into a regular blood donation to tease out stem cells that could later be turned into red blood cells. An initial pool of around half a million stem cells resulted in 50 billion red blood cells. The process to grow these red blood cells took 18-21 days, per The Guardian.
So far, two patients have received small amounts — equivalent to a couple of spoonfuls — of lab-grown blood to examine how it performs in the body. The trial aims to compare the lifespan of lab-grown cells to infusions of standard red blood cells from the same donor.
There are two potential benefits of using lab-grown blood. First, the approach could address the donor shortage for those with rare blood types who require regular transfusions — for instance, patients with sickle cell disease and thalassemia.
Secondly, researchers expect lab-grown blood to outperform standard donor blood. Red blood cells have a lifespan of about 120 days, and a normal blood donation contains cells of varying ages. By contrast, the lab-grown blood cells are all fresh. Thus, they’ll perform better and last longer. This could, in turn, reduce the frequency of transfusions for patients who regularly need blood.
It could also help avoid iron overload, a complication linked to constant blood transfusions.
Researchers hope to conduct the trial on at least 10 volunteers before moving on to further studies. While roadblocks, such as costs and stem cell viability times, remain, growing blood in a lab could shape the future of medicine and blood transfusion.