Scots scientists ‘using stem cells to make blood’

A patient undergoes a blood transfusion. A Scottish-led team of scientists are using stem cell technology to create fresh blood. Picture: Donald Macleod

A patient undergoes a blood transfusion. A Scottish-led team of scientists are using stem cell technology to create fresh blood. Picture: Donald Macleod

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A SCOTTISH-led consortium of medical experts is using stem cell technology to create a limitless supply of fresh human blood in the laboratory for use in clinics around the world.

The £5 million “BloodPharma Project” is being led by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS) with the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Heriot-Watt, NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) and Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) using stem cells produced by Roslin Cells Ltd.

The team have been working with embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells, which, given the right culture conditions, can differentiate into any type of cells.

Once they have the all-clear, the researchers will move on to limited human tests in 2016-17, before hopefully moving on to a trial for safety and effectiveness in patients with beta thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder, in 2018-19.

Over the past four years the researchers have been working out how to make embryonic stem cells turn into red blood cells that could be mass-produced.

Dr Joanne Mountford, an experimental haematolgist at the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow, is leading the basic science of the project. She said: “Because we make them from human cells, they are as nature intended. It’s the same thing your body makes but we’re just doing it in a lab.

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“Lab-grown blood has advantages over blood from a donor.

“If I take a bag of blood from your arm, some cells would be brand new. But some of them would be 110 or 120 days old and about to die. These cells won’t do you much good.”

The team originally responded to a specific call from the US military in 2007.

They wanted scientists to help them build a machine no bigger than two and a half washing machines that could be dropped from a helicopter on to a battlefield and generate stem-cell-derived blood for injured soldiers.

The team’s application was not successful, but they refocused their efforts and set off on a more utopian mission – to develop a similar technology to create a limitless supply of clean, laboratory-grown blood for use in clinics around the world. Using blood made from stem cells would unshackle blood services from the limits of human supply, and any risk of infection would be removed.

Using engineered red blood cells from a single batch, the team proposes, will ensure that recipients receive younger, fresher and more effective blood.

Another advantage is that they are making type-O blood, which can be given to practically all patients – including those with rare AB-negative blood.

Dr Mountford said: “There are many hurdles to overcome in the process of turning a stem cell into a useful red blood cell, and even more challenges we face in trying to ramp-up production to an industrial scale.”

Dr Ted Bianco, from charity the Wellcome Trust, which is funding the project, said: “Harnessing the power of stem cell biology is one of the most exciting opportunities we can expect to see reach fruition in the coming years.”

Keith Thompson, CEO of the Cell Therapy Catapult, who are partners in the project said: “Blood transfusions play a critical role in current clinical practice, with over 90 million red blood cell transfusions taking place each year world-wide. We are very pleased to be part of this exciting BloodPharma consortium, using our expertise to help convert promising early-stage data into a robust cell therapy to serve this large area of medical need.”

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