Our work

Every year, approximately 1.5 million red blood cell (RBC) donations are collected by NHS Blood and Transplant and used in blood transfusions. Our work focuses on the small number of patients with rare blood group types, who NHS Blood and Transplant cannot help.

Creating fresh RBCs from human blood stem cells to provide novel transfusion products promises better care for patients who need regular transfusions throughout their life (e.g. thalassemia, sickle cell disease and certain cancers). Potentially, these patients will need fewer transfusions reducing iron loading to tissues.

Producing cultured RBCs from cell lines from donors with rare blood groups may in the future generate sufficient blood that would otherwise be in short supply through conventional transfusion therapy.

Our aims

This Blood and Transplant Research Unit:

  • is conducting a clinical trial in volunteers to compare laboratory produced RBCs with conventional blood donations.
  • has been working to develop novel technology with the aim of being able to manufacture of enough RBCs to treat patients with rare blood groups.

How we grow blood in the laboratory

  1. Centrifuging the blood donation allows us to separate out the white blood cells, which include a tiny number of blood stem cells.
  2. We purify the blood stem cells by using antibodies that recognise stem cells, attached to magnetic beads.
  3. We incubate the cells for about three weeks in a series of liquids containing different nutrients and growth factors. These special cocktails of ingredients found naturally in the human body allow the cells to multiply and turn into red cells.
  4. The scientists have to “feed” the cells nearly every day and transfer them to bigger containers as they multiply. From one unit of blood at the beginning of the process, they eventually end up with eight bottles of cells, each containing three litres of liquid.
  5. The red cells are then passed through filters, to purify them. This produces one to two teaspoons of laboratory grown red cells.

This process all takes place in a special laboratory where we can keep the cells sterile.

Cultured cells in incubator (source: NHSBT).
Confocal mircroscopy image of an enucleating reticulocyte. The extruding nucleus is in blue, the membrane of the reticulocyte is in green. (source: NHSBT).
Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) image of a reticulocyte in the process of extruding its nucleus (source: NHSBT).
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