First human blood transfusion performed with lab-grown blood

Photo: NHSBT
Photo: NHSBT

Last month, we brought you a neuroscience dispatch on the science of lab-grown brain cells. This month, we’re back with news of a different advancement in the clinical application of lab-grown cells— this time, in the circulatory system. 

For the first time, British researchers have performed a human blood transfusion using laboratory-grown red blood cells. 

Now, these aren’t the kinds of blood transfusions surgical trauma patients or people with sickle-cell anemia receive. These initial transfusions are tiny—about a few spoonfuls—and they’re meant to test how the artificial blood performs in the human body. An important first check before this lab-grown blood can be deployed to save lives.

The first participants in the study, which aims to enroll at least 10 healthy volunteers, will test small amounts of normal and lab-grown blood in the subjects at about four months apart. Then, the researchers will compare the results to determine whether the lab-grown blood behaved differently than the normal, donated blood.

How is the lab-grown blood developed?

The process used by the team in the UK currently starts with a regular unit of donated blood. So, yes, donated blood is still necessary—even for artificial blood production.

Then, the researchers use magnetic beads to separate stem cells from the sample. Subsequently, they guide the stem cells so that they transform into red blood cells. 

This process continues for three weeks, at which point researchers amass a total of 50 billion lab-grown red blood cells. Then, they filter the sample down to about 15 billion cells by selecting those that are at the right stage of development for transfusion.

The idea, University of Bristol professor Ashley Toye told the BBC, is 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.”

So, even when we still rely on donated blood, the amount we’ll need to procure from human donors to have a viable, well-stocked supply will eventually be much lower.

The economic picture: lab-grown blood is expensive, but perhaps not for long

In the UK—where blood donors are paid—a one-unit blood donation currently costs the NHS around £130, on average. In the U.S., where voluntary blood donation is unpaid, acquiring a unit of blood is even cheaper.

It’s no surprise that artificial blood is significantly more expensive than donated blood—costing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of USD per unit.

In the long term, however, the production of artificial blood may also grow cheaper. Hematologist Vijay Sankaran—the lead author of a Harvard study detailing a refined approach to gene-editing artificial red blood cells—expressed hope that advancements in the field would eventually bring the cost down to a more manageable $2,000 per unit.

Plus, history paints an optimistic picture. There are now countless examples of once-unaffordable technologies (e.g., diagnostic wearables and telehealth tools) in widespread use. 

We hope this increasing affordability will also translate to transfusion patients. With costs in the U.S. starting at $200 for just one unit of blood (not factoring in storage, processing, and hospital fees), regular blood transfusion is already an economic challenge for many patients. 

Therefore, when factoring in the high price of artificial blood, we urge private healthcare stakeholders to prioritize affordable access for patients who need the life-saving impacts of regular blood transfusions the most.

A game-changer for rare blood types

As artificial blood is still more expensive than donor blood, researchers emphasize the need to prioritize manufacturing lab-grown blood for patients with rare blood types. 

Insufficient blood supply is already a significant issue. 

Major factors include increased blood supply usage due to an aging population and supply chain disruption linked to pandemic-era lower rates of blood donation. This issue is all the more critical for patients with rare blood types, for whom appropriate donors are already hard to come by.

To further illustrate how dire the situation is for these patients, at the time of reporting, there were just three units of the rare “Bombay” blood group in stock across the UK.

Increasing the supply of these rare-type blood reserves will particularly impact those who receive regular blood transfusions, such as sickle-cell anemia patients. Ultimately, making compatible blood more accessible for patients with rare blood types could dramatically improve these patients’ clinical outcomes.

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