UK scientists trial world-first lab-grown blood donation

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Wednesday 9th November 2022

UK scientists are trialling lab-grown blood donation in a world first. Researchers are testing tiny quantities of lab-grown blood to see how it acts in the body. The primary aim of the trial is to determine whether it is possible to manufacture samples for people with extremely rare blood groups, including people who rely on transfusions for diseases such as sickle cell anaemia. 

Sickle cell disease covers a range of conditions, which impact the red blood cells. The red blood cells have an abnormal shape, which means that they don’t reside as long as healthy red blood cells. In the case of sickle cell anaemia, the red blood cells cannot transport enough oxygen around the body.

This causes symptoms such as fatigue, muscle aches, dizziness and breathing difficulties. Transfusions can be challenging for people who have “ultra-rare” blood groups because the body rejects the donor blood if it is not an exact match. Tissue-matching in this instance is much more complex than conventional blood donation and goes far beyond the common blood groups, A, B, AB and O. If the trial is successful, teams could grow vital supplies of blood matches for individuals who cannot receive transfusions due to there being a lack of donor matches. 

Professor Ashley Toye, from the University of Bristol, explained that in some cases, where people have very rare blood groups, there could only be a handful of suitable donors in the UK. An example is the ‘Bombay’ blood group, of which there are only 3 units in supply in the whole of the country. 
During the trial, healthy volunteers will be given lab-grown blood as well as normal samples. Each participant will be given two donations at least 16 weeks apart. The blood is tagged using radioactive substances, which enables the research teams to monitor how it works in the body and how long it lasts. 

The project involves teams from Bristol, London, Cambridge and NHS Blood and Transplant. So far, two volunteers have been given donations. The team is hoping to add another eight participants in the days and weeks ahead. 

To create the new blood supplies, scientists take a pint of normal donated blood and use magnetic beads to extract stem cells that have the capacity to become red blood cells. In the lab, the stem cells are encouraged to multiply quickly and develop into red blood cells. The process takes approximately 21 days. A sample of 500,000 stem cells can create 50 billion red blood cells. From the 50 billion red blood cells, researchers take the best 15 billion.

Prof Toye said that the goal of the project is to create stores of blood, outlining a vision that comprises a “room full of machines” that produce blood on an ongoing basis. Natural red blood cells usually last around 120 days, but the team is hoping that the lab-grown cells will be more powerful than normal red blood cells. With a normal transfusion, an individual receives a mixture of new and old blood cells, while the lab-grown blood will comprise new cells only. This should mean that all the red blood cells last the full 120 days. If this is the case, people who need transfusions may not need them as frequently.

The trial is an exciting development, but there are challenges to overcome, most notably the cost. Growing blood in labs is much more expensive than conventional blood transfusions, which cost the NHS around £130 per donation. The exact cost of the process is not yet known. Another consideration is the volume of blood produced. This is a concern because harvested stem cells have a shelf-life. 

Medical director at NHS Blood and Transplant, Dr Farrukh Shah, described the trial as “world-leading research,” which has “very significant” potential.

Researchers stressed that for the vast majority of people, the future of transfusions remains in donations from people who are willing to give blood. The trial focuses on those with extremely rare blood groups who depend on blood transfusions for conditions and disorders, including sickle cell anaemia.