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Wellcome Trust funds research to cultivate red blood cells

A major research project looking at the potential of using stem cells to generate red blood cells for use in transfusions is being funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Professor Marc Turner - Director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS) - is leading a collaboration between NHS Blood and Transplant, SNBTS, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS), the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and Roslin Cells. Building on existing technology, the research team will turn stem cells into red blood cells and ensure that the resulting cells are safe to use in patients.

They will be producing type O negative blood cells, which in theory can be used for almost any patient in need of blood. The hope is to supplement the supply of blood from donors and fulfil the unmet demand for blood within the UK and around the world.

Professor Marc Turner said: "Although we have an established blood service in this country, we still experience difficulties with blood shortages from time to time. There are still the challenges of matching donor and patient blood, and we still have problems with transfusion-transmitted illness. And when one looks at the problems that Western countries face, these are of course relatively minor compared to the severe problems in other parts of the world."

The project will use human embryonic stem cells, which can be kept in culture indefinitely maintaining the potential to form any other type of cell or tissue in the body. The stem cells will come from embryos between three and five days old that would otherwise be discarded as part of routine IVF (in vitro fertilisation) treatments. The research will be conducted in accordance with Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) procedures.

The Wellcome Trust is providing almost £3 million to fund the research. If successful, it could lead to a new and sustainable source of blood for use in transfusions.

Dr Ted Bianco, the Wellcome Trust's Director of Technology Transfer, said: "Blood transfusion is one of the most common life-saving procedures in medicine, yet we remain dependent on the ongoing availability of donated material. To be sure of a reliable and scaleable supply of blood in the future, when and where it is needed, requires us to go back to the drawing board. It is an exciting and ground-breaking approach that the team led by Marc Turner have come up with. The time has come to apply modern biology to a procedure that has been with us for the best part of 200 years."

Supporting Video: 
Culturing red blood cells from stem cells