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Red Blood Cells from IVF Embryos

British scientists have turned stem cells from spare IVF embryos into red blood cells as part of a project to manufacture synthetic blood on an industrial-scale.

The aim (of the £3m project) is to develop an alternative source of O-negative blood for the universal donor group (the vast majority of the population) that can be transfused into without fear of rejection.

  • The project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, has used more than a 100 spare IVF embryos from fertility clinics to establish several embryonic stem cell lines that replicate continuously in the laboratory;
  • It is believed to be the first time (in Britain) that human red blood cells have been created from embryonic stem cells;
  • One of these lines, known as RC-7, has been transformed from embryonic cells into blood stem cells before being converted into the functioning red blood cells that contain the oxygen-carrying pigment hemoglobin;
  • If all goes to plan, the 1st clinical trials of synthetic blood made from embryonic stem cells could begin within 5 years;
  • It would raise the possibility of producing the entire supply of blood for the UK from a single “universal blood donor” who only ever existed as a 4 day old IVF embryo;
  • However, there are still obstacles to overcome.

Jo Mountford, a stem cell scientist at Glasgow University, confirmed that the synthetic red cells made in her laboratory from the RC-7 embryonic stem cell line produced by Roslin contained the hemoglobin pigment. “We have cells that are clearly red so we’re happy with that. We’ve managed to go 90 per cent down the path towards fully differentiated, adult red blood cells”.

  • One problem still to be resolved is to get the synthetic red cells to eject their nuclei, as happens naturally;
  • This enables the cells to carry oxygen more efficiently and to pass through the narrow capillaries of the blood vessels;
  • Only 1 of the 4 embryonic stem cells lines produced at GMP grade has been tested for its blood type;
  • The line, known as RC-9, is blood type B-positive and although it is not the universal donor type it can still be used for research;
  • In many ways, red blood cells pose fewer problems than nerve, muscle or liver cells which contain cell nuclei and carry the risk of becoming cancerous.

A key requirement for synthetic blood is that it should be just as cheap, or cheaper, to produce than donated blood. (HWM and S Connor, The Independent)