Lab grows blood for human trials

Human volunteers in the near future will test out blood created from engineered stem cells. Someday facilities could make type O on demand, like real-life Tru Blood factories.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

Tru Blood might not be real, but factories may one day pump out gallons of lifesaving lab-made blood. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

"Real blood is for suckers." That's a promotional slogan for Tru Blood, the fictional beverage that helps wean vampires off human blood in HBO's show "True Blood." Soon, however, it might become a catchphrase in hospitals across the globe, as researchers in Ireland and the UK work toward the commercial creation of red blood cells in the lab.

A cross-institute consortium has proven that red blood cells can be lab-generated using stem cells. Now, the scientists plan to take their research to the next level by converting something known as pluripotent stem cells into fresh red blood cells with the goal of starting the first human trials in late 2016. Should those trials prove successful, the team, funded by a 5-million-pound grant (about $8.4 million USD) from the UK's Wellcome Trust charitable foundation, hopes to scale up their process to manufacture blood on a commercial scale.

Pluripotent stem cells are created when normal adult cells are engineered back to a state resembling embryonic stem cells, allowing them to be turned into any cell in the human body. This avoids the controversial use of embryonic stem cells, reports the The Irish Times.

There are other benefits too. The cells can be engineered into type-O blood, creating a near-endless supply of red blood cells that could be received by all patients. Plus, the blood would be guaranteed to be free of disease, a problem that still plagues public blood supplies despite careful screening processes.

"Although blood banks are well-stocked in the UK and transfusion has been largely safe since the Hepatitis B and HIV infections of the 1970s and 1980s, many parts of the world still have problems with transfusing blood," Marc Turner, medical director at the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, told The Telegraph.

The stem-cell-to-blood-cell process is far from simple, however, which means it might be some time till lab-made blood becomes widely available.

"We must first make the stem cells become a mesoderm -- one of the body layers that makes things like muscle, bone, and blood -- and then get it to turn into blood cells," Joanne Mountford, an experimental hematologist working on development of stem cell-based technologies and regenerative medicines at University of Glasgow, explained in a statement. "Then we have to make it develop into a red blood cell specifically and finally make it eject its nuclei and mature properly."

Turner echoed his colleague's concerns but voiced optimism, saying, "Producing a cellular therapy which is of the scale, quality and safety required for human clinical trials is a very significant challenge, but if we can achieve success with this first in-man clinical study it will be an important step forward to enable populations all over the world to benefit from blood transfusions. These developments will also provide information of value to other researchers working on the development of cellular therapies."

The volunteers who will test out the new blood could be healthy or could suffer from thalassaemia, a condition that leads to anemia, reports Scotland's The Herald. There will probably be no more than three test subjects, receiving 5-millimeter doses of blood that will have started out as skin cells that the scientists then engineered into red blood cells.

Should the tests be successful, blood factories just may be next. A nice warm bottle of A-neg, anyone?