Cancer-curing Cylon baby blood may still be a fantasy, but within the next two years, two human volunteers will be receiving the very first blood transplants manufactured in a lab, the NHS announced last week.
Technically, what the NHS is calling the world’s first “synthetic blood” is actually biological in origin: It’s produced in vitro by extracting stem cells from the umbilical cords of newborn babies or from adult bone marrow. Placed in the proper chemical environment in the lab, stem cells can be stimulated along a particular developmental pathway that eventually leads to fully-functional red blood cells. Researchers have been developing the technology to manipulate stem cells for years, and now, our tools have advanced to the point that scaling up and producing entire blood bags seems within reach.
Sure, synthetic blood may sound a bit creepy, but much like lab-grown tissue transplants or replacement organs, it’ll actually be brilliant if we can make it to work. Eventually, hospitals could stockpile huge quantities of the stuff for emergency transfusions, or design batches specifically for patients suffering from sickle-cell anaemia and other rare blood disorders. What’s more, having never been inside a human body, lab-grown blood is practically guaranteed to be disease free, and has the potential to dramatically reduce the risk of spreading blood borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
For the first human trials, volunteers will be injected with a few teaspoons of the stuff to test for adverse reactions. Test transfusions will also allow scientists to study how long their lab-grown blood cells survive in a human host. So far, preliminary tests show that synthetic red blood cells are biologically comparable, if not identical, to blood cells produced the ol’ fashion way. But biology is full of surprises, and we’ll never know for sure until we try.
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