Sunday, April 19, 2009

Welsh scientist pioneers lifesaving synthetic blood

A REVOLUTIONARY scientific breakthrough, which would create an unlimited supply of synthetic human blood, moved a step closer last night. A group of researchers, led by Welsh scientist Professor Marc Turner, plan to use stem cells to become the first team in the world to create a supply of disease-free blood that cannot be rejected during transfusions. Last night it was announced the group had been awarded a £3m funding boost, allowing the pioneering research to be taken to the next level. The researchers will use stem cells from embryos left over from IVF, then screen them to find those genetically programmed to create the rare O negative blood group. O negative is regarded as the universal donor group which can be transfused into anyone without fear of rejection. The scientists will be able to create an unlimited supply because of the ability of stem cells to reproduce indefinitely in the laboratory. Prof Turner, originally from Cardiff, told the Western Mail that even though his team’s plans were at an early stage, last night they received an “encouraging” £3m funding boost from the Wellcome Trust, the world’s biggest medical research charity. “We have known about this deal for some time but it was made official today,” he said yesterday. “I cannot overstate how early a stage we are at, but this deal, which is worth millions, will help us take our research to the next level.” The academics’ work will culminate in about three years, when they will make the first transfusions of synthetic blood into human volunteers. If successful, their supply could help endless victims of road accidents and military casualties in the field, and be useful in situations where clean blood is not freely available. It will avoid the transmission of life-threatening diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and variant CJD – the human form of mad cow disease – during transfusions. Prof Turner of the University of Edinburgh, who is scientific director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, added: “From a personal point of view I think it is hugely encouraging and exciting that we have been able to use our knowledge of stem cells and haematology to get to this stage. “Our research is based on something we have been looking to do for about three or four years, looking at an ability to generate red blood cells from so-called adult stem cells, and I really think we have got to the point where we can do this in a research laboratory. “The next step will be transferring this into a clinical environment in an appropriate quality for human trials, which hopefully we will do in about three years. “We are looking forward to being able to get started on the real work when the grant kicks in this July.” Scientists, mainly in Sweden, France and Australia, have been working on similar plans to create synthetic blood, also using stem cells. And last year, the US company Advanced Cell Technology announced it had been able to create blood cells using embryonic stem cells. Their plans were held up because of former President George Bush’s opposition to embryonic cell work. Barack Obama has since reversed the policy. The multi-collaborative British project could eventually help plug the gap between the numbers donating blood regularly and the supply needed by hospitals. The National Blood Service for Wales said: “This is a very encouraging piece of research which has the possibility to show great promise for the future.” The Welsh Blood Service provides supplies of blood and its products to 16 hospitals in South, Mid and West Wales. It needs to collect more than 100,000 whole blood donations and 10,000 platelets every year, but only 6% of the nation currently gives blood

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