After making news on several occasions, scientists may have made a definitive breakthrough, with the first possible transfusion using blood obtained from embryonic stem cells possibly coming within the next three years. The transfusion would be done with type O blood, which can be donated to any patient, and would be obtained by researchers using excess embryos from assisted fertilization. The project, which will be led by Marc Turner of Edinburgh University, will also receive contributions from the Transfusion and Transplant Service of the British National Health Service, as well as the same department and Scotland, and the Welcome Trust, a large charitable group for medical research. The story was reported by the Independent and immediately created controversy and distorted information.
“This isn’t just talk, this time it is a serious breakthrough, and the group behind the project is very serious,” said Professor Carlo Alberto Redi, the scientific director of the IRCCS (Hospital and Medical Treatment) Foundation of the San Matteo General Hospital in Pavia, commenting on the story. Redi emphasized that the capability for the regeneration of the hematopoietic progenitor cells in vitro is well-known and the time is right for real blood to be created, with the term artificial blood no longer appropriate. “When the term synthetic blood is used, people imagine silicone blood, when in reality, in all effects, this is real blood,” said Redi.
IT CANNOT REPLACE BLOOD DONATIONS
The blood that the British researchers plan to use in human treatments in the next three years will only “support and complement” blood donation. Giuseppe Novelli, a geneticist of the University of Rome Tor Vergata, commenting to Adnkronos Salute, was less optimistic. “This is only an announcement, and it seems premature to talk about a victory. This research is starting off well because it has millions in financing and is based on evidence that is very hopeful. But we are only talking about one piece of a very complex puzzle.”
The puzzle, in this case, is represented by the blood that runs through our veins and arteries, “made up of red and white blood cells, platelets, and plasma,” said Novelli. “It is a very complex liquid, which carries out an essential function in our body.” The British study which is currently being launched “is limited to red blood cells, which are certainly not able to resolve all of the problems with transfusions”. The British studies are also developing type O negative blood, a group that is able to donate to any patient without any risk of rejection. “This is blood that can be used, and is used, only in case of emergency.” Novelli continued to say that “the new blood will not be able to replace real blood donation, and I don’t want these announcements to inhibit people from donating blood, or make them underestimate the value or the importance blood donation”.
As for an estimate on how much time it will take to create a synthetic blood that will resolve all problems linked to a lack of donations, Novelli said: “I’m not a magician! Science needs realism, and predictions cannot be made for this type of study. Certainly,” he concluded optimistically, “the progress made with stem cells in the past 12 years since their discovery is a great cause for hope”.