In the next five years, someone you know will need a blood transfusion… and blood banks have a frightening shortage – especially for people with rare blood types.

This deficit is really a problem for regional blood banks where such a scarcity of blood can literally turn simple operations into dangerous life or death prospects. But British researchers may have discovered an answer to this problem. Published in Nature Communications, a study reveals that scientists have found a way to create red blood cells from stem cells.

The American Red Cross says that two or three drops of blood may contain a billion red blood cells, so this study opens up new and groundbreaking prospects. Namely, that by incorporating stem cells in the process of red blood cell production, scientists and physicians might one day be able to create various amounts of blood whenever needed.

“[It] is a dramatic step forward because it gives us the view that we can actually scale up to whole units of blood,” said Dr. Harvey Klein, Chief of the NIH Clinical Center’s Department of Transfusion Medicine. Dr. Klein was not involved in the study. “This technology gives us that particular dream, or at least it brings us a lot closer.”

To get the stem cells to produce red blood cells, researchers fused stem cells with an unlikely source of help: cancer genes. The cancer genes, which came from human papilloma virus (HPV), were then placed into bone marrow cells. This process allowed the researchers to create adult red blood cells that had the capability of multiplying an infinite number of times.

These genes cause red blood cell production to go into overdrive. And as the cells divide into new red blood cells, amazingly, the cancer gene gets left behind! Here’s how it works: when red blood cells mature, they eject their nucleus. The nucleus of the cell is the information center — it’s the core where the DNA is found. It’s also why cells have that dimpled, round shape. During the study, the researchers separated those cells from others, thus not passing on the active cancer gene.

This study was done using stem cells from a bone biopsy, which is a more invasive process, but researchers say a small number of these stem cells can also be extracted by simply drawing blood. This UK research team has made many strides in their work; since the study wrapped last year, Frayne and her colleagues created two new cell lines in this manner.

“It’s a brilliant approach, and they seemed to have solved several of the really important bottlenecks,” said Dr. Robert Lanza, Chief Scientific Officer at the Astellas Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

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