London, August 20 : Scientists in the U.S. have announced a significant breakthrough that may provide an almost limitless supply of blood suitable for transfusion into any patient.
Robert Lanza, Chief Scientific Officer of the Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), says that his team has successfully grown phials of human blood from embryonic stem cells.
He says that this achievement may lead to trials of the blood within two years, and ultimately to an alternative to donations that would transform medicine.
The researcher believes that blood made from stem cells of the O negative blood type, which is compatible with every blood group but is often in short supply, can be given safely to anybody who needs a transfusion.
He also thinks that blood derived from stem cells will also reduce the risk of transmitting the pathogens that cause hepatitis, HIV, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) through transfusions.
Given the seemingly huge therapeutic potential of such blood, the researchers believe that this advance could easily become the first application of embryonic stem-cell research to enter widespread clinical use.
"Limitations in the supply of blood can have potentially life-threatening consequences for patients with massive blood loss," the Telegraph quoted Lanza as saying.
"Embryonic stem cells represent a new source of cells that can be propagated and expanded indefinitely, providing a potentially inexhaustible source of red blood cells for human therapy. The identification of a stem cell line with O negative blood type would permit the production of compatible 'universal donor' blood," he added.
He further said that his study also promises to turn embryonic stem cells into other types of tissues to treat conditions like diabetes and Parkinson's.
Lanza highlighted the fact that one of the biggest safety hurdles that must be cleared before stem-cell therapies entered clinical trials was the risk of uncontrolled cell growth causing cancer.
However, he said, red blood cells do not have nuclei that carry the genetic material that goes wrong in cancer, and thus should not present this danger.
"This could be one of the biggest breaks for the early clinical application of embryonic stem cells. There is still work to be done, but we could certainly be studying these cells clinically within the next year or two," he said.
Lanza's team is the first to produced red blood cells from embryonic stem cells on the scale required for medical use.
He and his colleagues have even shown that the red cells produced by their approach are capable of carrying oxygen, and that they respond to biological cues in similar fashion to the real thing.
Details of the research are published in the journal Blood.