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The first blood plants: this year ten people will receive synthetic blood transfusions

Red blood cells grown outside the body from bone marrow stem cells could save millions of lives and are now being tested to see if they can delay aging

Cancer cells drift in the bloodstream. Illustration: shutterstock
Cancer cells drift in the bloodstream. Illustration: shutterstock

One of the most important and common medical treatments today is the blood transfusion. Every year more than 112 million blood donations are collected all over the world[1]. the truth? It's exciting: people are willing to sacrifice their time and their bodies to save others they've never met. But, to put it mildly, it's not quite enough either. Somehow, health systems are still always lacking blood, especially in the developing world. And even in the richest countries, and if the blood flowing through your veins belongs to one of the rarer blood types, you may arrive at the hospital in an emergency - and find that they simply have no way to help you. They don't have the right blood.

But what if we could make artificial blood? It turns out that recently they managed to do exactly that - and next year it will be tested on humans for the first time.

What is blood anyway?

Let's start with a brief explanation about the blood. This is a liquid whose one of the most important tasks is to bring oxygen to the different body tissues. Inside the blood you can find the "red blood cells", which, you probably guessed, are red. And they are cells too, in case it wasn't clear. These cells are filled with a protein called hemoglobin, which is able to bind to it the oxygen coming from the lungs, and then release it in the tissues that need it.

In the past, there were attempts to produce alternative proteins in the laboratory, which could perform actions similar to hemoglobin, but these were not particularly successful. Therefore, the researchers turned in a different direction, and decided to try to produce whole red blood cells in the laboratory. To do this, researchers such as Alison Blair from the University of Bristol in England examined what happens in the bone marrow - the inner part of the long bones in our body. This area is actually a factory where red blood cells are produced non-stop. The 'workers' in this factory are special stem cells, which are able to produce red blood cells on demand, but only when they are inside the body, and only according to unique instructions and signals that the body constantly sends them.

Blair did not innovate anything here in terms of the concept. Already in 2011, researchers were able to extract the appropriate stem cells from the bone marrow, grow them in the laboratory and send them the appropriate chemical instructions that caused them to reproduce and produce a small number of human red blood cells[2]. They were even so confident in the safety of their process that they found a volunteer who agreed to receive one injection—just one—of lab-produced red blood cells. But Blair and her colleagues seem to have succeeded in perfecting the process and optimizing it to a level that may be suitable for the production of whole blood units.

Now all that remains is to test them on a larger scale than one injection for one person.

the blood test

New Scientist magazine reports that in 2019, ten volunteers will receive an injection with the same red blood cells that have never seen the inside of a human body until that point. These cells, by the way, will be marked with radioactive tags (don't worry, only weak radiation) so that the researchers can follow them inside the body and understand how they behave there inside.

Luc Douay, who studies the field at Sorbonne University, summarized the issue in the following words in an article he wrote in the Journal of Regenerative Medicine at the end of 2018 -

"The stem cell revolution opens up the potential for "blood for everyone" by creating quantities that are always sufficient for everyone, and without the risk of transmitting infectious agents. We can now actually produce large quantities of red blood cells in laboratories from several different types of human stem cells. The concept of laboratory red blood cells is therefore an existing reality. All required research steps have been successfully completed, including demonstration of the feasibility of injection into humans."[3]

Let's assume for a moment that these red blood cells will indeed succeed in functioning well in the bodies of the ten volunteers. This is not an exaggerated assumption, by the way, because the red blood cells are simple creatures compared to the cells of the body. What are the implications of this development?

In the short term, the implications are clear. As Duay wrote: "Blood for everyone". We will no longer need blood donations from healthy people. Only ten donors, with a one-time donation, will be enough as an "eternal source" of human stem cells that will produce blood that can match all the needs of 99% of other human beings[4]. On the basis of the cells that will be received from those ten donors, it will be possible to build - without exaggeration - entire factories that will produce blood in large quantities and bring it anywhere in the world. We can establish such tiny factories in the main cities of developing countries, and from there the blood can flow to all the villages and regional hospitals.

need blood? There is enough for everyone!

This, in itself, would be a huge advance for medicine, and could provide medical security for many. It will especially help the chronic patients who need multiple blood transfusions, and sometimes receive more than a thousand doses of blood throughout their lives. The laboratory blood is also supposed to be safer than blood produced from humans, because it is enough to make sure once that it does not carry malicious infiltrators, such as viruses or bacteria that can hitch a ride on the red blood cells. In this way, we will reduce to zero, from a practical point of view, the risk that the blood recipients will be infected with diseases that came from the donors.

But let's think further than that.

In preliminary experiments it was demonstrated that red blood cells from laboratory sources live longer than their counterparts obtained from human donors. The reason, probably, is that all the young laboratory red blood cells were produced at the same time, while a blood donation of human origin includes young, mature and elderly red blood cells. This means that each dose of laboratory blood can help the health of the recipient of the donation more than a normal dose of blood he would receive today.

It is interesting to think how the laboratory blood could help in the treatment of certain diseases that attack the red blood cells, such as malaria. The malaria parasites manage to settle inside the red blood cells and even grow inside them. We know that people with blood group O have some protection against the malaria parasites[7]. Can we, therefore, provide malaria patients with blood transfusions that will replace all the 'exposed' red blood cells in their bodies, with laboratory type O blood cells - and in the way get rid of all the malaria parasites that have already managed to nest in the patients' blood cells? What other diseases can we treat in these ways? And what does it mean to replace all the red blood cells in a person's body with younger, stronger and more efficient red blood cells?

Last but not least, the most exciting field is that of stopping aging through blood donations. There is preliminary (and still controversial) evidence that the blood of young people can delay aging processes in the elderly and even restore tissues that have already suffered the ravages of aging[5]. Unsurprisingly, start-up companies have already begun to emerge that sell the blood of young humans to rich adults[6]. This custom entitles those rich - again, not surprisingly - to the unflattering titles of "vampires". With some justice, it must be admitted. But what if we could produce young blood in unlimited quantities, and supply it to all the inhabitants of the world? I have a feeling people might feel differently about this treatment once they realize they too can get it to stay young for longer.

And again, it is important to emphasize here that the studies suggesting that young blood can delay aging are still not sufficiently established and a lot more research work is needed in the field. Even if the idea is true, it is quite possible that it is not the red blood cells that are responsible for delaying aging, but other factors in the young blood. But can't we, at the end of the day, replicate them too?

If the experiment in 2019 is successful, all these questions will begin to be answered in the coming years.

In any case, the laboratory blood once again sheds light on a happy pattern that repeats itself over and over again in medicine and technology: treatments that initially reach only the rich due to their high cost, become cheaper due to the progress of science and technology, and eventually reach everyone. It's not a necessity, of course, but it's a pattern we've been seeing throughout the past hundreds of years, and it's hard to see a reason for it to stop now. The most advanced treatments in medicine will reach everyone, sooner or later, provided we continue to support and promote science and technology.

[1] "Blood safety and availability." [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 26-Dec-2018].

[2] M.-C. Giarratana et al., "Proof of principle for transfusion of in vitro-generated red blood cells," B, vol. 118, no. 19, pp. 5071–5079, Nov. 2011.

[3] L. Douay, "Why industrial production of red blood cells from stem cells is essential for tomorrow's blood transfusion," Regen. Med., vol. 13, no. 6, pp. 627–632, Sep. 2018.

[4] T. Peyrard et al., "Banking of Pluripotent Adult Stem Cells as an Unlimited Source for Red Blood Cell Production: Potential Applications for Alloimmunized Patients and Rare Blood Challenges," Transfus. Med. Rev., vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 206–216, Jul. 2011.

[5] “Fountain of Youth? Young Blood Infusions 'Rejuvenate' Old Mice – Scientific American.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 26-Dec-2018].

[6] "Startups Flock to Turn Young Blood Into an Elixir of Youth | WIRED.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 26-Dec-2018].

[7] JA Rowe et al., "Blood group O protects against severe Plasmodium falciparum malaria through the mechanism of reduced rosetting," Proc. Natl. Acad., vol. 104, no. 44, pp. 17471–17476, Oct. 2007.

6 תגובות

  1. The truth is always when they talked about growing organs for transplantation in the laboratory.
    It would have sounded excessive arrogance to me as long as we transfer blood from person to person.

  2. Yasher Chakh Roi Tsezna for an exhaustive, noteworthy and interesting article. Already waiting for a follow-up article with results.
    Another thing, please do not refer to comments like D's. He apparently doesn't know you and is just throwing mud.
    All the best

  3. Mr. "D" I don't understand you .. this is an article faithful to the source and not cheap marketing by companies .. the science website is not pushing you hidden advertisements here .. at least that's what I want to think, and again if so then please don't mix science with sales and performance. This is about human life.
    Good Day

  4. As if we have learned nothing, this article also tries to "sell" the idea of ​​the wonder drug which is also a youth potion (and you forgot, dear writer, also an aphrodisiac to complete the package).

    It is all about red blood cells, not all the substances flowing in the blood. And what to do - red blood cells have one role - to bring oxygen to the cells and remove carbon dioxide. An essential role for sure, but limited.

    So let's be content with the facts (so far the blood cells have only been produced in the laboratory) and the reasonable predictions (blood cells in cheap mass production). The rest, including the start-up companies that live on the fresh blood of legends and illusions - we will leave to the naive and fraudsters.

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