Researchers have performed the first transfusions of red blood cells grown in a lab as part of a U.K.-based clinical trial to test how long these cells can live.
The team grew blood from stem cells that they had separated out from donated blood. When placed in a nutrient solution, the stem cells, which can mature into any kind of cell in the body, multiplied, and the researchers coaxed them to turn into red blood cells, per the BBC’s James Gallagher.
So far, two trial participants have received mini-transfusions of lab-grown blood, and neither has reported “untoward side effects,” per a statement from the University of Cambridge in England, which is contributing to the trial. At least ten people will eventually receive mini-transfusions as part of this stage of the research.
The trial is “a really important step along the way” to wider medical use of lab-grown blood, Marc Turner, director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, says to the Guardian’s Hannah Devlin.
Most transfusions will continue to be of regular blood donations, according to CNBC’s Karen Gilchrist. But the hope is that one day, lab-grown blood cells could supplement those donations to help patients with blood disorders and rare blood types, per the statement.
Red blood cells carry oxygen to tissues in the body, which use it to produce energy. But for people with conditions like sickle cell anemia, red blood cells don’t move easily through blood vessels and can block blood flow. Blood transfusions help treat conditions such as this, and they can also be given to people who have lost a lot of blood.
But patients can only receive transfusions from others with a compatible blood type. Some blood groups are “really, really rare” and there “might only be ten people in the country” able to donate, Ashley Toye, a cell biologist at the University of Bristol in England and one of the lead investigators of the study, tells the BBC. Lab-grown blood could eventually help address this shortage, per the Guardian.
The researchers theorize that lab-grown cells could last longer than donated ones. Since these cells are newly made, the researchers anticipate they might survive the full 120-day lifespan of red blood cells in the recipient’s body, according to CNBC. Regular donated blood, on the other hand, contains both young and old cells, and therefore might not survive as long.
Longer-lasting blood could mean that patients requiring regular transfusions could receive them less often. This would reduce the risk of complications from frequent transfusions, such as the buildup of iron in the body, per the Guardian.
Participants in the trial will receive a five- to ten-milliliter mini-transfusion of standard blood and another of lab-grown blood at least four months apart, per the statement. The cells will be marked with a radioactive substance to measure how long they survive in the body, per the BBC.
Normal transfusions are much larger than this, per Fortune’s Chloe Taylor. But the researchers still need to figure out how to grow larger quantities of red blood cells in the lab. Before they can produce clinically significant amounts of blood, they’ll have to do more research.
“To go from here to a routine product for patients, there is obviously a lot more work that needs to be done that will take many years,” Rebecca Cardigan, a clinical scientist at the University of Cambridge and one of the lead investigators of the study, says in a video released by the university.
The question remains how much a transfusion of lab-grown blood would cost. A blood donation costs the British National Health Service (NHS) around £130 (roughly $150), and a lab-grown transfusion would cost “vastly more,” according to the BBC.
A spokesperson for NHS Blood and Transplant, a collaborator on the trial, tells CNBC that “if the trial is successful and the research works, then it could be introduced at scale in future years, meaning that costs would fall.”