- Scientists used donor stem cells to grow red blood cells in a laboratory.
- A clinical trial of these cells is underway to see if they last longer in the body compared to regular donor blood.
- Lab-grown blood could increase the options available for people with rare blood types and disorders.
Scientists have grown red blood cells in a laboratory for the first time, which could someday help people with rare blood types or diseases that require regular transfusions.
Normally, people with blood disorders like sickle cell anemia depend on donor blood to survive. Some patients need blood transfusions as often as twice a week, according to researchers at the University of Bristol.
The Restore trial, a collaborative effort between the university and the UK National Health Service Blood and Transplant, is the first attempt at putting lab-grown blood cells in human patients.
The trial team started by growing new red blood cells from donor stem cells — which would multiply the potential impact of blood donations, researchers said in a press release. Next, they recruited healthy volunteers to receive mini-transfusions of those blood cells.
Each volunteer will receive two mini-doses of blood — one lab-grown, and one from a donor — at least four months apart. Researchers will then monitor the trial participants to see if the “young” blood cells grown in the lab last longer in the body compared to standard donor blood.
The trial is currently recruiting volunteers by invitation only, as researchers need extended blood type information to match donors and recipients. Two people have already been transfused with the lab-grown cells, with no side effects to date.
Even if the initial results are promising, more stages of testing will be needed before lab-grown blood can be used outside of clinical trials. Still, researchers said the trial represents an important step towards better treatment for people with blood disorders.
Lab-grown blood could help patients with rare blood types
While the creation of lab-grown blood cells does not eliminate the need for donor blood, it could increase the amount of blood available for people with rare blood types.
Matching donated blood to recipients requires more complex information than the basic A, B, and O types. The “positive” or “negative” designations for blood types indicate the presence or absence of Rh proteins, and there are several other vital proteins that can make or break a blood transfusion.
If the donor blood is not a precise match, the recipient’s body will reject it. This is bad news for people with rare blood types, and for people who need frequent transfusions.
“Patients who need regular or intermittent blood transfusions may develop antibodies against minor blood groups, which makes it harder to find donor blood which can be transfused without the risk of a potentially life-threatening reaction,” Farrukh Shah, medical director of transfusion for NHS Blood and Transplant, said in the press release.
There is also less donor blood available for people from Black and minority populations, who are disproportionately affected by blood disorders that require transfusions. Manufacturing blood from donor stem cells could maximize the impact of donations by people from rare blood groups.
In addition, the lab-grown blood cells may hold up for longer than donor blood, said chief investigator Cedric Ghevaert, a professor in transfusion medicine at the University of Cambridge.
“If our trial, the first such in the world, is successful, it will mean that patients who currently require regular long-term blood transfusions will need fewer transfusions in future, helping transform their care,” Ghevaert said in the press release.
Reducing the frequency of blood transfusions would not only save these patients time spent visiting the doctor, but also would lower their risk of iron overload and other complications associated with regular transfusions.