Red blood cells made from IVF embryos: UK scientists

British scientists claim to have turned stem cells from spare IVF embryos into red blood cells in a project with the goal of manufacturing synthetic blood on an industrial scale. It has been said to be the first time in Britain that human embryonic stem cells have been used to produce human red blood cells.

The £3m project is aimed at developing an alternative source of O-negative blood, the universal blood type that can be used by most people without fear of rejection.

The project has used over a hundred embryos left over from IVF procedures to establish several hESC lines. One of the lines, called RC-7, has been converted from embryonic cells into blood stem cells and then into functioning red blood cells containing the oxygen-carrying pigment haemoglobin.

The project is in its very early stages, with the first clinical trials of synthetic blood made from ESCs planned to occur within the next five years. The plan is to then scale the manufacturing process to produce over two million pints per year using industrial bio-reactors.

Professor Marc Turner, director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service in Edinburgh and leader of the project, said synthetic blood produced on an industrial scale would eliminate the problem of blood shortages and the transmission of infections between donors and recipients.

Some fundamental issues remain to be resolved. For example, scientists have to ensure that the cells are cultured with laboratory reagents that have not come into contact with animal cells, because these could contaminate the blood cells with animal diseases. The project is also yet to gain regulatory approval. In addition the use of hESCs themselves has been the subject of widespread bioethical debate. ~ Independent, Aug 16

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