The NHS Blood and Transplant Authority, the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service and the Wellcome Trust have jointly announced a pioneering project to create a potentially unlimited supply of blood for transfusions using embryonic stem cells (ES cells) derived from surplus IVF embryos which are donated for research. The 'synthetic' blood could eventually mean that clinical services would no long need to rely on obtaining a fresh supply of blood from donors since, in theory, a single embryo could supply the nation's needs.
The multi-million pound project will focus on identifying ES cells that produce the o-negative blood group. Although present in just seven per cent of the population, this blood group is in high demand because it can be transfused into anyone, regardless of their blood-type.
The project will be led by Professor Marc Turner, scientific director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service. Professor Turner told the BBC: 'We should have proof of principle in the next few years, but a realistic treatment is probably five to 10 years away. In principle, we could provide an unlimited supply of blood in this way.'
Work is expected to start on the research within the next few weeks, pending a number of legal issues which are currently being considered. Some groups are opposed to the research because it involves the destruction of early embryos in order to obtain ES cells.
Josephine Quintavalle, from the pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core), has concerns that the research could lead to a reduction in the number of blood donors. 'Associating this controversial research with a National Blood Transfusion service may even end up contaminating the feel-good image of blood banks. Those who donate blood but who defend the right to life of the human embryo may be reluctant to continue giving their blood,' she told the BBC.
Last year the privately-funded US company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) succeeded in making massive amounts of red blood cells from human ES cells. However the long-standing ban on federal-funded human ES cell research, only recently reversed by President Barack Obama, has delayed further progress.
The Wellcome Trust has pledged £3 million towards the project, with the blood transfusion services of Scotland, England and Wales together funding the rest, as well as potential involvement from the Irish government. Other countries involved in similar research include Sweden, France and Australia.