British scientists create “immortal” stem cells
April 2017

In what’s being hailed as a “dramatic step forward” by some in the scientific community, British researchers have used stem cells to successfully create a “limitless supply” of artificial blood.

There have been many past attempts at artificially developing blood cells in a lab, but this latest effort has proved to be the most promising. Using stem cells, researchers created cells that continually divided for over a year, something the team found “quite exciting” according to one of study’s lead authors, Jan Frayne, a biochemist at the University of Bristol. The development means researchers can artificially create enough red cells to fill a blood bag, something that may have many future benefits and uses. It is still a number of years until human trials can begin, and in the meantime, many more blood donors will be needed to allow research to continue. Following trials, it will be many more years before the approved cells will be used in hospitals, and even then, only a select subset of patients will be treated.

However, when looking at the grander scheme, the potential benefits of such a breakthrough are many.

Creating artificial blood using HPV

To create the cells, Frayne and the team infected bone marrow cells with genes from human papilloma virus (HPV), a strain of the virus that causes cervical cancer.
This led to the creation of the first adult red blood cells able to multiply an infinite number of times, hence the name “immortal.” Attempts at creating cells capable of this in the past have taken place using cord blood and infantile cells, however, these were unsuccessful. This is largely because the cells fail to continue dividing beyond a certain point. It’s therefore thought this attempt yielded more success because of the age of the cells used; as red blood cells mature, the nucleus is spat out. This centre was then filtered away from the other cells, so that what was left did not contain any active cancer cells. However, with so many cells being cultivated, there is the potential for some that do contain cancerous cells to slip through, but Frayne notes the levels of which would be so low, they are unlikely to lead to the onset of blood cancer.

The benefits of immortal, lab-grown blood

There is a great deal of potential when it comes to uses for these blood cells should they successfully pass clinical trials.
For example, they could be used to aid supply in areas currently experiencing blood shortages, something that can be particularly beneficial to patients with rare blood types. It can also be transported to regions in need of high levels of blood for transfusions, such as war zones.

Type O is the most requested blood type, and yet there are often shortages of it. Thanks to the breakthrough of Frayne and the team, this may no longer be the case. Furthermore, lab-grown blood does not contain many of the same properties as whole blood, such as iron, immune cells and proteins. This means it can be used to treat patients who require multiple transfusions with greater success, as the chances of clots developing are lower. The likelihood of blood-borne diseases being accidentally spread via transfusion are also substantially lower with artificially developed blood.

While there are numerous advantages to the development, there is much that needs to be ironed out before the cells can pass clinical trials. For example, in order for mass production to take place, more equipment would be needed – at substantial cost. “To make big huge vats of it would be outside of our ability in a research lab,” said Frayne, adding that such production would only be possible with “company interest.” There is also a great need to blood donations in the meantime to enable the team to continue with their pioneering research.

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