For the first time ever, people are receiving transfusions of blood cells grown in the laboratory

For the first time ever, people are receiving transfusions of blood cells grown in the laboratory

Illustration: Shutterstock (Shutterstock)

Illustration: Shutterstock (Shutterstock)

An important clinical trial is underway in Great Britain. The study is the first to transfuse lab-grown red blood cells from donated stem cells into humans. If this research pays off, these blood cells would be incredibly valuable for people with rare blood types, although they would not replace the need for traditional blood donations.

The RESTORE trial, as it is known, is being conducted by scientists from the UK’s National Health Service and various universities. At least 10 healthy volunteers are expected to be included in the study. They will all receive two mini-transfusions, four months apart and in random order, of laboratory-grown blood cells and standard cells, both derived from the same donor. As of early Monday, two participants had already received the lab-grown blood cells and so far appear to have experienced no side effects.

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The first trial of its kind is a phase I trial, meaning it is primarily designed to test the safety of a new or experimental treatment. But lab-grown cells are theoretically fresher than a mix of newer and older blood cells taken from a typical blood donation (red blood cells live about 120 days on average). Therefore, the researchers hope that the cells grown in the laboratory survive longer than standard cells in their recipients.

“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 lead researcher Cedric Ghevaert, a hematologist and professor of transfusion medicine at the University of Cambridge, in statement published by the NHS.

Scientists have long been interested in producing blood in the laboratory. But replicating the complex natural process that allows the stem cells in our blood marrow to become new red blood cells has proven challenging. RESTORE researchers believe they have found a more efficient way to extract stem cells from donated blood, to grow these cells using a unique mixture of nutrients, and to purify enough healthy and mature red blood cells from the resulting mixture to make the effort worthwhile.

If this project proves successful, lab-grown blood cells still won’t replace donated supplies anytime soon. The team process is much less efficient than what the human body can do. Currently, for example, they need about 24 liters of nutrient solution to filter one to two tablespoons of red blood cells. Meanwhile, about 45% of our blood is compiled red blood cells.

Even if mass-produced blood cells grown in the lab are a distant possibility, they could still help many people in the near future. This technology could one day provide a more reliable and long-lasting supply of blood cells to people who have a rare mix of blood types or who have developed conditions that make it difficult to receive standard transfusions, such as sickle cell disease.

For now, this trial is just the beginning. That will require more human studies and anywhere from five to 10 years of development before we can expect lab-grown blood cells to be available to the public, the researchers said.

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