Giving blood is an immensely noble and selfless thing to do, but it's no picnic. Needle-phobes will be happy to know that science has a solution on the way: mass-produced artificial blood, which is now more likely than ever before.
A team of researchers from Bristol Uni and the NHS Blood and Transplant department have made a breakthrough with a new method of manufacturing blood that's much more efficient and scalable than the old way. If all the trials go to plan, it could be a literal lifesaver for people with rare blood types.
Before now, fake blood could be made – in small batches – by taking donated stem cells and growing them into red blood cells. The new way is "robust and reproducible," and involves turning adult stem cells into "immortalised" premature red blood cells, which can be mass-multiplied indefinitely before being finished off into mature red cells later.
Dr Jan Frayne from the University of Bristol explains:
“Previous approaches to producing red blood cells have relied on various sources of stem cells which can only presently produce very limited quantities. By taking an alternative approach we have generated the first human immortalised adult erythroid line (Bristol Erythroid Line Adult or BEL-A), and in doing so, have demonstrated a feasible way to sustainably manufacture red cells for clinical use from in vitro culture.
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.”
Professor Dave Anstee, Director at the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit in Red Cell Products, says the people who'll benefit most are those with rare blood types:
“Scientists have been working for years on how to manufacture red blood cells to offer an alternative to donated blood to treat patients.
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.
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."
However, don't stop donating blood just yet. The NHS still needs 1.5 million units a year for patients in England alone, and it'll be a long time before Theme Hospital-style fake blood can be produced en masse – if that happens at all.
Still, it's great news for science, medicine and pun fans: the new type of blood is called the Bristol Erythroid Line Adult, or BEL-A – meaning it'll be someone's job to produce fresh pints of Bel-A.