Every two seconds, someone in the United States needs blood, with nearly 21 million blood components transfused each year. This demand is hard to keep up with, and the medical community has long been trying to find a way to artificially meet the demand without relying exclusively on volunteers.
While red blood cells have been artificially manufactured before, they have only been produced in very small quantities. The old method worked by taking stem cells, and then turning them into red blood cells. This could produce about 50,000 cells before the stem cells died. To put this in perspective, a typical bag of blood requires 1 trillion red blood cells.
The Bristol team overcame the inefficiency by creating a line of immortal erythroid (or red-blood-cell- producing) stem cells. By trapping the adult stem cells in an early stage of development, the cells can divide and create red blood cells indefinitely.
“We have demonstrated a feasible way to sustainably manufacture red cells for clinical use. We’ve grown liters of it,” said Dr. Jan Frayne, one of the researchers.
While the method is effective, lab-grown red blood cells are still much more expensive than donated blood, and technology does not yet exist to produce the blood on a mass scale.