A team of scientists from the Advanced Cell Technology Company (ACT), California, USA, have made massive amounts of red blood cells from human embryonic stem cells (ESC). The work may lead to laboratories being able to produce blood for transfusions, providing a limitless supply and an alternative to donations. This exciting development in stem cell research was published in the journal Blood last week.
'[The paper] clearly shows that stem cells could serve as an unlimited source of blood for transfusion in the future', Dr. Robert Lanza at (ACT), who led the research with colleagues from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the University of Illinois in Chicago, told Nature.
The researchers created the red blood cells by exposing cultures of human ESCs to a sequence of nutrients and growth factors. An important step in the process was achieving 'enucleation' - making the cells eject their nuclei, as they do naturally in the body. The functions of the cells were tested, and results suggest the cells can carry as much oxygen as donated red blood cells. The cells were also able to respond to environmental stimuli, as donated cells would.
It will be possible to make type O negative blood from stem cells, which everyone can receive safely regardless of their blood type, believe the researchers. It may also be possible to produce red blood cells from adult pluripotent stem cells, avoiding the need for ESCs. This work is the first time red blood cells have been made in bulk from stem cells. The next step will be to test that the cells are safe and functional in animals. Stem cells have the potential to develop into many different cell types, and it is possible they could be used to treat a variety of human disease. For example, scientists are currently researching the use of stem cells as therapy for Parkinson disease and diabetes, amongst others.