NHS Blood and Transplant, in collaboration with the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford, will take stem cells from adults or the umbilical cord blood of newborns and trigger their development into mature red blood cells. These blood cells will then be transfused into a small number of people to test the safety of the procedure.
A key aim of the project is to create blood that is a better match for patients with rare blood types and conditions that typically need frequent donor blood transfusions, such as sickle cell anaemia or thalassaemia.
Dr Nick Watkins, assistant director of research and development at NHS Blood and Transplant, said: 'These trials will compare manufactured cells with donated blood. The intention is not to replace blood donation but provide specialist treatment for specific patient groups'.
The two sources of stem cells offer different benefits. Cord blood is a rich source of stem cells that is being explored in other clinical settings, such as being given as a transfusion following chemotherapy to rebuild the immune system.
Deriving stem cells from adult blood is usually a more complex procedure. Researchers aim to make induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, by 'reprogramming' the cells into stem cells. This gives scientists the opportunity to make blood from a patient's own cells - allowing the production of compatible blood for even rare blood types.
'Scientists across the globe have been investigating for a number of years how to manufacture red blood cells to offer an alternative to donated blood to treat patients,' said Dr Watkins. 'We are confident that by 2017 our team will be ready to carry out the first early phase clinical trials in human volunteers.'
In the early phase trials, healthy volunteers will be given a very small volume of lab-produced blood – just a few teaspoons – in order to test for adverse reactions and see how long the cells last for. The trials will compare the performance of the 'synthetic blood' to standard donated blood to ensure that it is equally safe.
The project comes at time when the NHS is trying to build capacity for the treatment of patients in need of blood and organ donations. The number of new blood donors was recorded last year as being 40 percent lower than what it was ten years ago.