NHS Blood and Transplant has recently announced plans to start transfusing lab-developed red blood cells into humans by 2017. The main goal is to better match blood for patients with complex blood disorders who require regular treatment.
The breakthrough in-man trials form part of the NHS authority’s ambitious 2020 Research and Development programme, which focuses on experimental strategies to stretch current capacity to account for growing demands. Over the next five years, and in partnership with Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford universities, NHS Blood and Transplant aims to develop transfusion, transplantation and regenerative medicine. “Continued investment in research and development is critical to our role in saving and improving lives through blood and organ donation. Our five-year research and development plan will ensure we advance treatment of all who depend upon our products and services,” said Dr Nick Watkins, NHS Blood and Transplant Assistant Director of Research and Development. Previous research, some of which has been funded by the Wellcome Trust, has already laid much of the groundwork that underlies current practices and sheds light on how to advance these procedures.
“Scientists across the globe have been investigating for a number of years how to manufacture red blood cells to offer an alternative to donated blood to treat patients. We are confident that by 2017 our team will be ready to carry out the first early phase clinical trials in human volunteers,” said Watkins. “The manufactured red cell trials form part of our world-leading work in regenerative medicine and one of eight research goals for 2015-2020 that will bring long-term improvements for patients and donors.”
The trials are necessary to compare these manufactured cells with currently used donated blood. The goal is not to replace blood donation but instead to provide alternative specialist treatments for certain patient groups. The team, led by Professor Dave Anstee, Director of the International Blood Group Reference Laboratory (Bristol, UK) and Dr Ashley Toye, Senior Lecturer in Erythrocyte Biology at the University of Bristol, are investigating stem cells from adult and umbilical cord blood to create better-matched blood. Among the patients who could benefit most from the trial are those with sickle cell anemia and thalassemia, who regularly need blood transfusions and for whom finding compatible donors is an evolving problem. To meet demand and ensure cost—effectiveness, the number of regular blood donors needs to increase; specifically, NHS Blood and Transplant say they need to recruit 204,000 donors this year.
The National Institute for Health Research has committed £12.1 million funding for three Blood and Transplant Research Units, which will be embedded within a leading university. Their focus will be the rapid translation of stem cell research into transplantation medicine. George Freeman MP, Minister for Life Sciences said: “These exciting and pioneering developments demonstrate the world leading research being done by our NHS. We are now working on an ambitious programme to further improve our work with donors and patients. NIHR funding will ensure we can build on world-class research in transfusion and transplantation for patient benefit.”