In a World First, Two People Received Transfusions of Lab-Grown Blood

Of the four main blood types, the most common is the O-positive type, accounting for 37% of the population. The O-negative type, on the other hand, is a universal donor, which means that it carries the lowest risk of causing serious reactions for most people who receive it during a transfusion. For people with rare blood types, however, finding compatible donors can be nearly impossible, making blood-related health issues that much more dangerous. An initiative in the UK may present a viable solution with laboratory-grown blood.

For the first time ever, blood grown in the lab from adult stem cells has been transfused into two people. The trial will be expanded to include 10 participants, with scientists comparing the longevity of lab-grown blood to that of a traditional transfusion.

The infusions were part of a clinical trial run by the UK’s National Health Service Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) and the University of Bristol, and included researchers from various other UK institutions.

Decades of research have gone into the process that successfully grows blood cells. The haematologists started with donated blood (from adult donors recruited through the NHSBT donor database) and used magnetic beads to isolate and retrieve stem cells from the blood. They pushed stem cells to differentiate into red blood cells ex-vivo using a cocktail of proteins similar to those used naturally by the body.

It took three weeks for the donated blood to reach a critical mass sufficient for transfusion; a starting pool of 500,000 stem cells produced 50 billion blood cells, and of these, 15 billion were at the right stage of development for transplantation. In this context, it’s not that many; the amount of transplanted blood was between 5 and 10 milliliters, or 1 to 2 teaspoons. The average healthy adult has 3.92 to 5.65 red blood cells per microliter of blood in their body.

The team’s hope is that lab-grown blood will last longer in recipients’ bodies than donated blood in general. According to BBC, since donated blood contains both young and old cells, it usually lasts no more than 120 days at most. Lab-grown blood, on the other hand, is made up of all young cells, so it should last longer before it needs to be replaced. The team ‘tagged’ the lab-grown cells with a radioactive substance so they could track its progress through the recipients’ bloodstream.

“If our trial, the first of its kind in the world, is successful, it will mean that patients who currently need regular long-term blood transfusions will need fewer transfusions in the future, helping to transform their care.” , said Cédric Ghevaert, professor of transfusion medicine. and consultant haematologist to Cambridge University and NHSBT.

The next step is for additional participants to receive two blood transfusions four months apart, one standard and one of lab-grown cells, and the results will be closely compared. No negative side effects have been observed to date in the two people who have already received transfusions.

The team envisions its technology eventually being used to make large quantities of rare blood types, which could be extremely beneficial for people with blood disorders that require frequent transfusions. Treating sickle cell disease alone requires 250 blood donations a day (and that’s only in the UK).

“Patients who require regular or intermittent blood transfusions may [as a] develop antibodies against minor blood groups, making it more difficult to find donor blood that can be transfused without the risk of a life-threatening reaction,” said Dr Farrukh Shah, Medical Director of Transfusion for NHS Blood and Transplant. “The need for normal blood donations to provide the vast majority of blood will remain. But the potential of this work to benefit hard-to-transfuse patients is very significant.

Image credit: NHSBT

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