Engineering blood from stem cells could make traditional blood donations a thing of the past.
Blood pharming, engineering red blood cells from stem cells, could replace blood donations.
The process can create red blood cells faster than it takes the human body to produce new blood.
For now, the expense of blood pharming makes it impractical.
Throughout the years, fictional scientists have created human bodies in laboratories. We can't do that yet, but we're now officially one step closer: creating human blood in a lab from human umbilical cord stem cells.
Scientists at the bioengineering company Arteriocyte had a DARPA contract (Defense and Research Projects Agency) to engineer red blood cells, a process called pharming. Until now, the only way to get red blood cells for use in medical procedures was through blood donors. But ultimately, the government will, through blood pharming efforts, have access to engineered red blood cells for use in military hospitals for trauma care.
The idea of engineering blood cells isn't new. In 2008, researchers at Advanced Cell Technology, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Mayo Clinic succeeded in creating small quantities of human blood in a lab. Arteriocyte has figured out how to make lots of it by taking stem cells -- cells that can become anything in the body --from discarded human umbilical cords and turning them into the oxygen-carrying red stuff usually produced by the marrow in your bones.
In fact, using their proprietary process, Arteriocyte can produce 19 pints of red blood cells with a single umbilical cord. This seems especially crazy considering the human body only contains about 10 pints of blood.
Why is pharming blood important?
Traditional blood donation is great. You go in, you lay down on the funky rubber lounge chairs, you get poked with a big scary needle, you race the guy next to you to see who can fill up their bag first, you get a cookie, and you leave. But from there, the blood has a long journey ahead of it. Your blood is cleaned, transported and stored until it's needed. But like that tub of Greek yogurt in my fridge, your blood could likely expire before someone uses it. This means we need a constant flow of blood from donation to storage.
Blood pharming can create new red blood cells faster than the 120 days it takes the human body to produce all-new blood, and could ultimately take traditional donors out of the equation. Plus, it alleviates the burden of shipping blood all over the world.
Jon Mogford, Deputy Director of the Defense sciences Office at DARPA, indicated the hope was to supplant donation supplies with engineered blood. To help with this, Arteriocyte's scientists only produce type O negative blood, which is universally compatible.
Is there a difference between this blood and my blood?
The marrow in your bones naturally creates blood. The engineered blood is artificially created. However, "Theoretically there should be no difference," said Mogford. "We try and mirror the process that's occurring in the body, and recreate it in the lab."
So you can feel confident, if a little creeped out, that these engineered red blood cells are as safe -- or safer -- as any from a donor.
So what's the catch?
Expense. It is still so expensive to engineer blood in the lab that the military will continue to get blood directly from people's arms, transport it, store it and risk it expiring. The scientific discrepancy as to when blood actually becomes stale or expires makes it easier to argue for the traditional donor method.
So while Arteriocyte's red blood cells are technically the same, our bodies can create blood for the price of breakfast, lunch and dinner, which is still more desirable. Until science can do it cheaper, being faster is not enough. Engineering human blood is a little far off yet, but advances like these take us one step closer to engineered blood circulating through all of us.
Sources: DARPA's Defense Sciences Office, Arteriocyte,WIRED Magazine's Article Discovery News' 2008 Article About Early Blood Pharming Trace Dominguez is an intern for Discovery News.