Blood grown in a lab has been transfused into humans for the first time in a landmark clinical trial.
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LONDON — Laboratory-grown blood has been transfused into humans for the first time in a landmark clinical trial that U.K. researchers say could significantly improve treatment for people with blood disorders and rare blood types.
Two patients in the UK were given small doses, equivalent to a few teaspoons, of lab-grown blood in the first stage of a larger trial designed to see how it behaves inside the body.
The trial, which will now be extended to 10 patients over the course of several months, aims to study the lifespan of laboratory-grown cells compared to standard red blood cell infusions.
The researchers say the goal is not to replace regular human blood donations, which will continue to make up the majority of transfusions. But the technology could allow scientists to make very rare blood types that are difficult to obtain but vital for people who rely on regular blood transfusions for conditions like sickle cell anemia.
“This world-leading research lays the groundwork for the manufacture of red blood cells that can be safely used for transfusion in people with disorders such as sickle cell anemia,” said Dr Farrukh Shah, Medical Director of Transfusion for NHS Blood and Transplant, one of the collaborators on the project.
“The need for normal blood donations to provide the vast majority of blood will remain. But the potential for this work to benefit difficult-to-transfuse patients is very significant,” he added.
The research, which was carried out by researchers in Bristol, Cambridge and London, as well as by NHS Blood and Transplant, focuses on the red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Initially, a regular blood donation was taken and magnetic beads were used to detect flexible stem cells that are capable of becoming red blood cells.
Those stems were then placed in a nutrient solution in a laboratory. Over the course of about three weeks, the solution encouraged those cells to multiply and become more mature cells.
The cells were then purified using a standard filter — the same type of filter used when regular blood donations are processed to remove white blood cells — before being stored and then transfused to patients.
For the trial, blood grown in the lab was tagged with a radioactive substance, often used in medical procedures, to monitor how long it lasts in the body.
The same process will now be applied for a trial of 10 volunteers, each of whom will receive two 5-10ml donations at least four months apart, one from normal blood and one from lab-grown blood, to compare life cell usefulness.
It is also hoped that the longer lifespan of lab-grown cells will mean that patients require fewer transfusions over time.
A typical blood donation contains a mix of young and old red blood cells, which means their lifespan can be unpredictable and suboptimal. Meanwhile, lab-grown blood is freshly made, meaning it should last the expected 120 days of red blood cells.
Still, there are currently significant costs associated with the technology.
The average blood donation currently costs the NHS around £145, according to NHS Blood and Transplant. Lab-grown substitutes would likely be more expensive.
NHS Blood and Transplant said there was “no figure” for the procedure yet, but added costs would come down as the technology spreads.
“If the trial is successful and the research works, it could be introduced on a large scale in the next few years, meaning costs would come down,” a spokesperson told CNBC.