Lab-grown blood used for first time in human patients

Red blood cells that have been grown in a laboratory have now been transfused into another person in a world first clinical trial led by a UK team including University of Bristol researchers.

The manufactured blood cells were grown from stem cells from donors. The red cells were then transfused into volunteers in the RESTORE randomised controlled clinical trial.

This is the first time in the world that red blood cells that have been grown in a laboratory have been given to another person as part of a trial into blood transfusion. (1)

If proved safe and effective, manufactured blood cells could in time revolutionise treatments for people with blood disorders such as sickle cell and rare blood types. It can be difficult to find enough well-matched donated blood for some people with these disorders.

The RESTORE trial is a joint research initiative by NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) and the University of Bristol, working with the University of CambridgeGuy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation TrustNIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility, and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It is part-funded by a National Institute for Health and Care Research grant. (1)

The trial is studying the lifespan of the lab grown cells compared with infusions of standard red blood cells from the same donor. The lab-grown blood cells are all fresh, so the trial team expect them to perform better than a similar transfusion of standard donated red cells, which contains cells of varying ages.

Additionally, if manufactured cells last longer in the body, patients who regularly need blood may not need transfusions as often. That would reduce iron overload from frequent blood transfusions, which can lead to serious complications.

The trial is the first step towards making lab grown red blood cells available as a future clinical product. For the foreseeable future, manufactured cells could only be used for a very small number of patients with very complex transfusions needs. NHSBT continues to rely on the generosity of donors. (2)

Two people have so far been transfused with the lab-grown red cells. They were closely monitored and no untoward side effects were reported. They are well and healthy. The identities of participants infused so far are not currently being released, to help keep the trial ‘blinded’.

The amount of lab grown cells being infused varies but is around 5-10mls – about one to two teaspoons.

Donors were recruited from NHSBT’s blood donor base. They donated blood to the trial and stem cells were separated out from their blood. These stem cells were then grown to produce red blood cells in a laboratory at NHS Blood and Transplant’s Advanced Therapies Unit in Bristol. The recipients of the blood were recruited from healthy members of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) BioResource.

A minimum of ten participants will receive two mini transfusions at least four months apart, one of standard donated red cells and one of lab grown red cells, to find out if the young red blood cells made in the laboratory last longer than cells made in the body.

Further trials are needed before clinical use, but this research marks a significant step in using lab grown red blood cells to improve treatment for patients with rare blood types or people with complex transfusion needs.

Co-Chief Investigator Ashley Toye, Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Bristol and Director of the NIHR Blood and Transplant Unit in red cell products, said: “This challenging and exciting trial is a huge stepping stone for manufacturing blood from stem cells. This is the first-time lab grown blood from an allogeneic donor has been transfused and we are excited to see how well the cells perform at the end of the clinical trial.”

Co-Chief Investigator Cedric Ghevaert, Professor in Transfusion Medicine and Consultant Haematologist the University of Cambridge and NHS Blood and Transplant, said: “We hope our lab grown red blood cells will last longer than those that come from blood donors. If our trial, the first such in the world, is successful, it will mean that patients who currently require regular long-term blood transfusions will need fewer transfusions in future, helping transform their care.”

Dr Rebecca Cardigan, Head of Component Development NHS Blood and Transplant and Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge said: “It’s really fantastic that we are now able to grow enough red cells to medical grade to allow this trial to commence, we are really looking forward to seeing the results and whether they perform better than standard red cells.”

John James OBE, Chief Executive of the Sickle Cell Society, said: “This research offers real hope for those difficult to transfuse sickle cell patients who have developed antibodies against most donor blood types. However, we should remember that the NHS still needs 250 blood donations every day to treat people with sickle cell and the figure is rising. The need for normal blood donations to provide the vast majority of blood transfusions will remain. We strongly encourage people with African and Caribbean heritage to keep registering as blood donors and start giving blood regularly.”

Dr Farrukh Shah, Medical Director of Transfusion for NHS Blood and Transplant, said: “Patients who need regular or intermittent blood transfusions may result develop antibodies against minor blood groups which makes it harder to find donor blood which can be transfused without the risk of a potentially life-threatening reaction. This world leading research lays the groundwork for the manufacture of red blood cells that can safely be used to transfuse people with disorders like sickle cell.  The need for normal blood donations to provide the vast majority of blood will remain. But the potential for this work to benefit hard to transfuse patients is very significant.”

The Bristol team’s work is highlighted in this Bristol Biodesign Institute research impact case study entitled: ‘Cultured red blood cells: a window into the future of transfusions and therapeutics‘.

Further information

(1)  RESTORE is a clinical trial initiated by a joint research unit from NHS Blood and Transplant and the University of Bristol called the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit in Red Blood Cell Products. The unit is working with the University of Cambridge, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility, and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It is part-funded by a National Institute for Health and Care Research grant. The red blood cells are grown at NHSBT’s Advanced Therapies Unit in the Cellular and Molecular Therapies function in Filton from blood donors who have agreed to take part in the study.  The cells are labelled with a tracer element by the Radiopharmacy Unit at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital so they can be tracked through the recipient’s body when they are transfused. Recipient volunteers are recruited through the Recipient volunteers are recruited through the NIHR BioResource and study clinical team and receive their infusions in the NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility. Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust provides pharmacy, laboratory, and research support.

(2)  RESTORE is a long-established clinical trial. It is not related to the recent Amber Alert on blood stocks in England.

About the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR)
The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:

  • Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care;
  • Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services;
  • Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research;
  • Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges;
  • Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system;
  • Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries.

NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.

 


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