07 November 2022

Red blood cells from a test tube

In the UK, tests of laboratory-grown red blood cells have begun

Elena Likhanova, RB.RU

Researchers from the University of Bristol and the Department of Blood Transfusion and Transplantation of the National Health Service The UK (NHS Blood and Transplant) will have to compare the properties of donor red blood cells and the material created from stem cells. This is the first clinical experiment of its kind in the world. In the future, the method will make blood of rare groups more accessible and reduce the number of transfusions required.

"This is the first case of transfusion of blood grown in the laboratory [from donor stem cells], and we are pleased to see how well the cells work according to the results of a clinical trial," comments Professor Ashley Toye from the University of Bristol, who participated in the study.

Two healthy volunteers were transfused laboratory-grown red blood cells as part of the Restore study, which was jointly conducted by the University of Bristol and the Department of Blood Transfusion and Transplantation of the National Health Service Great Britain. No negative side effects have been reported.

Laboratory blood has two potential short-term benefits. Firstly, this approach could solve the problem of a shortage of donors for people with rare blood groups who require regular transfusions, such as patients with sickle cell anemia and thalassemia.

Secondly, it is expected that the characteristics of laboratory-grown blood will exceed the donor material. The service life of red blood cells is about 120 days, and ordinary donor blood will contain cells of different ages. At the same time, all blood cells grown in the laboratory will be fresh, so they should work better and last longer.

This could reduce the frequency of blood transfusions to patients who regularly need blood, and help avoid iron overload — a complication associated with repeated transfusions when too much iron accumulates in the body that needs to be removed.

"We hope that the red blood cells grown in our laboratory will last longer than those obtained from blood donors," comments Professor Cedric Gevert, principal investigator from the University of Cambridge.

"If our trial, the first of its kind in the world, is successful, it will mean that patients who currently require regular long-term blood transfusions will need fewer transfusions in the future, which will help change their treatment."

People with blood diseases such as thalassemia or sickle cell anemia depend on regular blood transfusions or exchange of red blood cells. Some require up to 12 units of blood every four to six weeks.

Laboratory-grown blood is produced from adult stem cells taken from donated blood. Stem cells are placed in a nutrient solution for a period of 18 to 21 days, which stimulates the cells to multiply and develop into more mature cells. To produce one or two tablespoons of red blood cells, it takes about 24 liters of nutrient solution.

The cells are labeled with an indicator that allows them to be detected in the blood samples of the study participants within six months after the initial injection of the cells.

It is expected that at least 10 participants will receive two small transfusions at intervals of at least four months: one will include standard donor material, the second — laboratory-grown cells.

So scientists are going to find out whether young red blood cells obtained in the laboratory last longer than cells obtained in the body.

Professor Mark Turner, director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, who is not involved in the trial, calls it a "really important step towards" producing blood in the laboratory for large-scale clinical use. However, according to him, the need for donors will remain in the foreseeable future.

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