Cambridge University Researchers Develop and Administer Lab-developed Red Blood Cells in Clinical Study with Promising Results for the Blood Supply
Sickle cell patients and others who need long-term blood transfusions provided by clinical laboratories and others would benefit most from successfully lab-grown blood
Administering lab-developed red blood cells in humans in a clinical study conducted in the United Kingdom (UK) is being hailed as a significant step forward in efforts to supplement the supply of whole blood through the development of synthetic blood products. Of interest to those clinical laboratory managers overseeing hospital blood banking services, researchers were able to create this new blood product from normal blood pints collected from donors.
What caused this clinical study to gain wider attention is the fact that previous attempts to create synthetic whole blood products have proved to be unsuccessful. For that reason, this new research has raised hopes that lab-grown blood may be just around the corner.
The initiative, known as RESTORE, is a joint research project conducted by scientists from the UK’s:
- National Health Service Blood and Transplant (NHSBT),
- University of Bristol working with the University of Cambridge,
- Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust,
- National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Cambridge Clinical Research Facility; and,
- Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
According to the researchers, it is the first such clinical trial performed in the world. Partial funding for this clinical study was provided by an NIHR grant, according to an NHS press release.
Most hospital laboratories also manage a blood bank. Thus, this breakthrough will be of interest to many clinical laboratory managers and blood bankers who are concerned about the shortage of blood products. Plus, blood products are quite expensive. This research could develop solutions that both ease the tight supply of blood and lower the cost of these critical products while improving patient care.
“This research, backed by government investment, represents a breakthrough for patients and means treatment could be transformed for those with diseases including sickle cell,” said Neil O’Brien (above), Minister of State for Health, in an NHS press release. “Once again this shows the UK is leading the world when it comes to scientific innovation and collaboration while delivering high quality care to those who need it the most,” he added. If the lab-grown products prove clinically viable, medical laboratories in the UK may soon suffer less from a shortage of available blood. (Photo copyright: UK Parliament.)
Manufacturing Blood from Stem Cells
“This world-leading research lays the groundwork for the manufacture of red blood cells that can safely be used to transfuse people with disorders like sickle cell,” hematologist Farrukh Shah, MD, Medical Director Transfusion, NHS Blood and Transplant, told BBC News. “The need for normal blood donations to provide the vast majority of blood will remain. But the potential for this work to benefit hard-to-transfuse patients is very significant.”
The process of manufacturing blood cells starts with a normal donation of a pint of blood. The researchers then use magnetic beads to single out flexible stem cells that can become red blood cells. Those flexible stem cells are grown in large quantities in the lab and then guided to transform into red blood cells.
“This challenging and exciting trial is a huge stepping stone for manufacturing blood from stem cells,” said Ashley Toye, PhD, Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Bristol in the NHS press release. “This is the first-time lab grown blood from an allogeneic donor has been transfused and we are excited to see how well the cells perform at the end of the clinical trial.”
The process to create the lab-grown blood cells takes about three weeks, and a pool of approximately half a million stem cells can result in 50 billion red blood cells. These cells are then clarified further to reap about 15 billion red blood cells that are at the optimum level to transplant into a human patient.
“Some blood groups are extremely rare, to the point that only 10 people in a country can donate blood,” Toye told BBC News. “We want to make as much blood as possible in the future, so the vision in my head is a room full of machines producing it continually from a normal blood donation.”
Transforming Care for Patients Who Need Long-term Blood Transfusions
To date, only two patients have taken part in the clinical trial. Next, the researchers plan to perform two mini transfusions on 10 volunteers at least four months apart. One transfusion will contain traditional donated red blood cells and the other will consist of the lab-grown cells. This experiment will show which blood cells last longer in the body. The findings could ultimately allow a patient to receive fewer transfusions and prevent iron overload, which can be a side effect of blood transfusions.
“We hope our lab-grown red blood cells will last longer than those that come from blood donors,” said Cédric Ghevaert, MD, Senior Lecturer in Transfusion Medicine at the University of Cambridge, in the NHS press release. “If our trial—the first such 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, helping transform their care.”
More research and clinical trials will be necessary to validate the efficacy and safety of these lab-grown blood products. However, such a breakthrough could potentially revolutionize treatments for patients with blood disorders, complex transfusion needs, and rare blood types, as well as reduce healthcare costs and curb blood shortages.
At the same time, this technology would also contribute to expanding the supply of useful blood products, a development that would be welcomed by those pathologists and clinical laboratory professionals overseeing the blood banks in their respective hospitals and integrated delivery networks (IDNs).