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‘Huge Breakthrough’ may create ‘limitless’ blood supply

N0017892 Blood transfusion bags Credit: Wellcome Images. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Blood transfusion bags Blood bank transfusion bags x 5 each of a different blood grouping Photograph Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

A new hope for millions today as researchers are ‘tantalisingly close’ to a ‘limitless’ manufactured blood supply. A team at Boston Children’s Hospital have successfully manipulated human stem cells to produce a mixture of blood cells in mice. Although there is some way to go, and several hurdles to overcome, the potential is great. This ‘huge breakthrough’ may change the way we use blood forever.

A huge breakthrough

The team from Boston Children’s Hospital experimented with directing the growth of human stem cells. They used a combination of ‘morphogens’ and ‘master transcription factors’, agents that guide the cells growth pathway.  Out of 26 agents tested, 7 were able to modulate these cells into useable cell lines, creating a mixture of human blood cells when used in mice (see below for a more detailed explanation of how stem cells work.)

These findings have shocked the medical community. Dr. Sugimura, a lead investigator, told The Independent

This step opens up an opportunity to take cells from patients with genetic blood disorders, use gene editing to correct their genetic defect and make functional blood cells.

This includes conditions like Sickle Cell Anaemia and Thalassaemia. Furthermore, Dr. Sigimura is optimistic about his discoveries other use

This also gives us the potential to have a limitless supply of blood stem cells and blood by taking cells from universal donors.

Risk of cancer

One problem with the process is a potential for the development of cancerous cells. Normal human cells renew at a known rate, and the total number is regulated by a bodily or cellular mechanism. The process of cell ‘apoptosis’ ensures that the body has enough, but not too many. In the case of cancer, the intrinsic pathways of regulation are bypassed, creating an ever growing, spreading and an ultimately fatal colony of cells. This is how a tumour is formed.

The use of self renewing stem cells poses a theoretical risk of a blood cancer. Researchers will have to find a way to prevent or limit this before mass production.

The next steps

The use of manufactured blood is an exciting development. The potential in the treatment of blood disorders, cancers, and genetic problems is staggering. But it may be a few years, and a few hurdles, before we see Dr. Sigimuras work on the market. An NHS spokesman told The Independent

“It will, however be some time before this research leads to manufactured blood cells being used for patient treatment, volunteer donors remain a vital lifeblood for patients and will remain so for many years to come.”

Trusted Medicine Education: Stem Cells

Stem cells are named after their ability, to act as a ‘stem’ for any family of cells. Humans, and other life, are formed of a complex and interwoven collection of cells, each working together to feed and fix the organism. We have skin cells, bone cells, brain cells, gut cells and millions of others. Fantastically, they all develop from a common ancestor, the Stem cell.

Simplified diagram of Ste Cell proliferation pathways

Stem cells are known as ‘pluripotent progenitors’, that literally means that they are able to ‘differentiate’ into many different families. A ‘progenitor’ is a cell that leads to a new cellular family, so if you want you could call your grandad a progenitor for your family. The direction which the stem cell takes is managed by a number of molecular agents, either ‘morphogens’ or ‘transcription factors’. Each will guide the cell toward a new path, much like a school teacher guiding a child.

The excitement with Stem Cells is their ability to be manipulated for medical treatment.  Embryonic or adult, there is potential for manipulation into cell lines. Adult stem cells are further along in development, and may only be tricked into forming a few different lines. Embryonic, i.e fetal, can go anywhere if given the nudge. We have been using adult stem cells for years, harvesting them from bone marrow in the treatment of blood cancers.

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Disclaimer

Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.

Sources and Further reading

Here are our sources and some useful links if you want to learn more.

Image courtesy of Flickr. Image has been resized.

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About drbmjanaway (16 Articles)
Doctor and author with an interest in neurology, evolutionary biology and public health communication

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