View Full Version : Scots close to medicine?s Holy Grail ... a true blood substitute

03-14-2010, 03:15 PM
Exclusive: Edd McCracken

14 Mar 2010

An artificial substitute for human blood ? the Holy Grail for A&E departments and battlefield surgeons ? could soon be a reality, thanks to the pioneering work of Scottish laboratories.

Scientists are reporting that a three-year, multi-million pound Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service project is on course to reach its ambitious target of creating a limitless, long lasting, virus-free artificial blood supply.

Biotech firms and universities in England, France, Japan and the US are also in the race for what scientists refer to as artificial ?red gold?.

?We are part of the vanguard,? said Marc Turner, professor of cellular therapy at the University of Edinburgh and manager of the artificial blood project. ?It?s very exciting. We?re fortunate enough to be working at the cutting edge of science. And for me as a jobbing medic the prospect of developing something that might benefit patients is very satisfying. It?s an exciting place to be.?

The ambition is to create in a laboratory an O-negative strain of blood that can be administered to patients without screening for blood types, which will be free of viruses such as CJD, HIV and West Nile disease, and due to its long life (human blood has to be used within 30 days) can be transported to any corner of the world to save lives.

With vampire TV shows such as True Blood and films such as Daybreakers dramatising the search for artificial blood, this strand of science is highly topical. The topic will also take centre stage at next month?s Edinburgh International Science Festival.

According to Professor Chris Cooper from the University of Essex, who will be giving the talk on April 8, the need is acute.

?With an ageing population there is an increasing demand for blood,? he said. ?Hospitals do get close to running out of blood. Even in the most high-tech hospitals in the US they sometimes don?t have enough blood of the right type in trauma situation.?

The scientists are all united as to what the main prize is for being the first to create artificial blood.

?The main benefit is to make a difference to people?s lives,? said Professor Cooper. ?It is a clinical need that is unmet, and

is really unmet in places like Africa. In some places they can?t even afford to test the blood they have donated.?

Both Prof Cooper and Prof Turner?s competing teams are both attempting to recreate just one element of blood: the red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body.

While Prof Cooper is using bacteria to make haemoglobin, the Scots team is employing embryonic stem-cell technology. Embryonic stem cells have the ability to make any body cell. The team based at Glasgow University is trying to train them to make red blood cells.

?We took the point of view that the red blood cell has had millions of years of development to be fantastic at transporting oxygen,? said Dr Jo Mountford, who is leading the Glasgow team. ?So, rather than make something else, we?ll make them. Now we have the stem cell sources to do that. This definitely puts Scotland in the forefront of this field.?

At the end of the three-year project, which has been funded by a ?3 million grant from the Wellcome Trust, the team hope to have clinical-grade red cells to use in small-scale studies. ?Which, in itself, is quite a big ask,? said Prof Turner. ?But we are currently on course to do that.?

A full-scale blood substitute industry is still over a decade away. One main challenge is being able to scale up the technology to produce the vast amounts needed. But the financial rewards for being the first to crack it are potentially huge. Already the US has invested $3-4 billion in the challenge.

Within the global biotech industry the blood market is worth ?7bn annually. Eighty million units of blood are transfused every year, mainly within the west. For each unit the NHS has to spend between ?100 and ?140.

?Blood has been called red gold,? said Professor Cooper. ?There is money in it.?

A vein quest

The search for a blood substitute has been around for as long as people have been bleeding. After William Harvey described how blood circulated around the body in 1616, physicians tried all kinds of fluids ? including wine, beer and even urine ? to replace our life source.

During the Second World War transfusions between humans became more common and blood banks were established. But the search for an alternative continued. In the 1960s a chemical solution was proposed in the form of PFCs. These proved quite effective but were linked to a rise in strokes, so their use waned.