Irish and UK scientists use stem cells to grow red blood cells

‘Natural’ cells would bring benefits to patients

Scientists in the UK and Ireland have successfully used stem cells to grow large numbers of red blood cells in the laboratory and are now preparing to test them in human trials. The new cells should be better for patients because they will be fresh and young and the process will also help treat blood disorders, said the medical and scientific director in the Irish Blood Transfusion Service.

The Wellcome Trust in Britain yesterday announced renewed funding of €6 million to continue the research and carry out the first "in-man" tests before the end of 2016.

"We were part of the initial concept development four or five years ago, with the notion of seeing could we grow red blood cells, " said Dr William Murphy, of the board of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. The board was part of a consortium led by the Scottish National Blood Service that included scientists from Ireland, England and Scotland and also private sector participation.

Human trials
University College Dublin was one of the centres contributing to the work and its role is now finished, he said. The board will continue to participate, however, helping to design the human trials, Dr Murphy said. "We would be looking to participate," he said.

Being able to make fresh blood using the very processes employed by nature would bring important benefits to the patient, he said.


“It is very significant. The main driver is that in time, making blood in this way could become less expensive.”

It costs about €500 per unit to collect blood from donors and have it available in hospitals, but this should fall, he said. “But the ancillary benefits are more valuable. This blood will be much fresher and so the clinical effects should be better.”

It could be used to treat any condition where the patient can’t produce healthy red blood cells, the cells that carry oxygen around the body.

It could provide fresh cells to those with sickle cell anaemia or patients whose bone marrow does not produce healthy cells.

“This product should work with all of these,” Dr Murphy said.

The process involves growing trillions of stem cells and then using growth factors and other substances, originally found in the body but used in the laboratory, to convert stem cells naturally to red blood cells, explained Dr Jo Mountford of the Scottish transfusion board and the University of Glasgow where the laboratory is based. She stressed that these were the same as a person's own cells.

"It is not synthetic blood, it is not artificial, the method produces blood cells by the natural system, they are not chemically treated," she said.

Initially the researchers used stem cell lines derived from human embryos, something that raises ethical concerns because it involves destroying the embryo.

The researchers have moved away from use of these cells, however, in favour of using induced pluripotent stem cells. These are derived from adult human cells and are coaxed back to a state similar to embryonic stem cells.

This wasn’t done in response to ethical concerns, she said.

“The advantage of using pluripotent cells is you can choose the donor. You can get an ideal universal donor.”

They take adult cells from a person with type O negative blood as this can be given safely to those with any other blood type, she said.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.