A line immortal stem cells has been developed by researchers which will allow them to generate an unlimited supply of artificial red blood cells on demand.
Given that these artificial blood cells pass clinical trials, they will be more efficient than current red blood cell products, for medical use, that have to be produced from donor blood. This development will be a huge issue for patients with rare blood types, who often struggle in finding matching blood donors.
These immortal stem cells will not replace blood donation altogether as donated blood still works for regular blood transfusions. But separating red blood cells from donor blood is a constant struggle.
1.5 million Units of blood need to be collected each year in the U.K. alone to meet the needs of patients, especially those with rare blood types and conditions such as sickle-cell disease.
Lead researcher Jan Frayne from the University of Bristol in the UK said “Globally, there is a need for an alternative red cell product. Cultured red blood cells have advantages over donor blood, such as reduced risk of infectious disease transmission.”
Researchers had attempted to turn donated stem cells straight into mature red blood cells in the past which works but is an incredibly inefficient process. 50,000 red blood cells are made by each stem cell before it dies off making the researchers in need of a new blood donation.
50,000 might sound like a lot but a typical bag of blood used in hospitals contains around 1 trillion red blood cells.
Immortal Stem Cells:
The University of Bristol team took a different approach to overcome this issue, they turned adult stem cells into the world’s first line of immortalized ‘erythroid’ stem cells – erythroid refers to the process that produces red blood cells. They’ve called the cell line Bristol Erythroid Line Adult or BEL-A cells.
The team trapped the adult stem cells in an early stage of development to create these ‘immortal’ cells meaning they can divide and create red blood cells forever without dying, which negates the need for multiple donations.
Frayne told the BBC “Previous approaches to producing red blood cells have relied on various sources of stem cells which can only presently produce very limited quantities. We have demonstrated a feasible way to sustainably manufacture red cells for clinical use. We’ve grown litres of it.”
There’s another famous line of immortal stem cells used in labs around the world called HeLa. It was taken from the tissue of a woman called Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge.
In 1951, Lacks was an African American woman who had a cancerous tumor biopsied. She wasn’t informed that those cells were turned into the immortal HeLa cell line which played a crucial role in key milestones such as the development of the polio vaccine, as well as major cancer studies, and continues to be used today.
On the other hand the BEL-A immortal stem cells were precisely selected from voluntarily donated blood products with the singular aim of generating adult human blood cells.
If the red blood cell products pass clinical trials, they could be just as revolutionary and useful as Lacks’ cells did.
In a press statement Dave Anstee, director of the UK’s National Institute of Health Research Blood and Transplant Research Unit in Red Cell products, which collaborated on the research, announced “Scientists have been working for years on how to manufacture red blood cells to offer an alternative to donated blood to treat patients. The patients who stand to potentially benefit most are those with complex and life-limiting conditions like sickle cell disease and thalassemia, which can require multiple transfusions of well-matched blood.”
He added “The intention is not to replace blood donation but provide specialist treatment for specific patient groups. The first therapeutic use of a cultured red cell product is likely to be for patients with rare blood groups because suitable conventional red blood cell donations can be difficult to source.”
Before saying with certainty that the artificial red blood cells are safe and effective, they still need to undergo clinical trials in humans
However, by the end of this year early safety trials based on previous manufacturing methods will begin, and if it goes according to plan, the researchers will trial the BEL-A cell products in patients shortly after that.