We May Soon Have an Unlimited Supply of Blood for Transfusions
Scientists seem to have developed a way to create artificial blood that may work as well as real blood from donors.
The Importance of Blood Donations for the Future
Researchers speculate that blood donations are going to be more important in the future because people are living longer and outnumbering the number of donors.
The problem becomes more complicated when you factor in the actual percentage of donated blood that's viable for transfusions. Some donors end up screening positive for transmittable diseases, including cancers. Also, red blood cell quality isn't really the same across the board.
Why Researchers Think Synthetic Blood Is Better
Researchers have been playing around with the idea of artificial sources of blood for transfusion purposes. They say these are actually superior to actual blood for many reasons.
First off, since the artificial blood is of the same high quality, patients would need fewer transfusions. Too many blood transfusions can cause organ damage because of the high iron content coming from continuous introduction of red blood cells. Why would patients need more transfusions? Because the donor's blood cells at the time may have been damaged by old age. Red blood cells have a lifespan of 120 days, on average, which means a blood donation may occur during the tail end of a significant amount of the blood donated.
Artificial blood would always be new because they'd be synthesized, then stored before any kind of use – unlike real blood, which is used by the donor's body for who knows how long before it's been donated.
Second, artificial blood is disease-free and untainted – or at least it has a very low probability of being contaminated with diseases. It's made in a sterile environment, whereas donated blood can be contaminated with a wide assortment of diseases from the donor.
Preliminary Success With an Artificial Line of Immortal Red Blood Cells
Researchers finally found a viable way to synthesize artificial blood (from a not so artificial origin). Blood cells (both red and white) originate from the bone marrow. These researchers skillfully extracted the stem cells from bone marrow that are responsible for differentiating into red blood cells. They manipulated these cells to stay as stem cells and continue to multiply.
When enough of the stem cells have been created through cell division (perhaps enough to fill a bag of blood), the researchers can then trigger them to differentiate into red blood cells! Using this method, researchers can keep a reserve of the modified stem cells that continue to multiply indefinitely. Then, when blood is needed, they'll take a large number of them and force them to differentiate into red blood cells.
It's Still Too Soon
Currently, researchers say these artificial red blood cells are identical on both a molecular and cellular level from in-vitro red blood cells. But more testing is needed to see if it's safe and viable for use with actual patients.
Also, the current method of production makes the artificial blood more costly than actual blood donor donations and transfusions. That means that, financially, it's currently only suited for last-resort purposes – like people who have hard-to-match blood types, like O or O negative.