Scientists said Tuesday that they have devised a way to grow large quantities of blood in the lab using human embryonic stem cells, potentially making blood drives a relic of the past.
But experts cautioned that although it represented a significant technical advance, the new approach required improvements before it could be considered a realistic alternative to donor blood.
The research team outlined a four-step process for turning embryonic stem cells into red blood cells capable of carrying as much oxygen as normal blood. The procedure was published online by the journal Blood.
The ability to make blood in the lab would guarantee that hospitals and blood banks have access to an ample supply of all types of blood, including the rare AB-negative and O-negative, the universal donor.
It would also ensure that patients are never at risk of contracting diseases such as hepatitis C or HIV, which can be acquired from donor blood, said Dr. Dan Kaufman, associate director of the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute, who wasn't involved in the study.
The research was conducted by a team that included researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the private sector Advanced Cell Technology Inc.
Cost could be the biggest hurdle. Roger Dodd, vice president of research and development at the American Red Cross' Holland Laboratory in Rockville, Md., said producing blood in the lab could cost thousands of dollars per unit — far too expensive to replace the 14-million pints of red blood cells that are transfused every year. "It's a rather ambitious goal," Dodd said.