Someone in the United States needs blood every two seconds, and every year, 4.5 million Americans would die without life-saving blood transfusions. 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. However, new research from the University of Bristol and the United Kingdom’s National Health Service offers hope with a medical breakthrough that could one day revolutionize the blood transfusion process.
Though 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.
Artificial blood is still a far more costly and cumbersome method of acquiring blood than standard blood donation at this stage. But with further work, the new method could one day be used alongside blood donation in hospitals around the world. Doctor Jan Fraye, a biochemist at the university and one of the study’s authors stated, “Globally, there is a need for an alternative red cell product. 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. However, 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.