CHENNAI: IIT-Madras scientists have blood on their hands - and nobody is complaining. A team of scientists from the department of engineering design has been successful in creating enough red blood cells from stem cells to be used as 'artificial blood' in people who need transfusion.
Having proved their oxygen-carrying capacity, the RBCs will now go into 'mass production' before starting human trials in three years, scientists said. The IIT team recently got a funding approval from the Union ministry of science and technology to produce artificial blood on an industrial scale. This blood would be tested on animals before human trials. If the trials prove successful, it will help hospitals overcome shortage of blood and save many accident victims.
"We will be able to provide any amount of safe and disease-free blood at half the cost of blood sold now," said the study's principal investigator, Dr Soma Guhathakurta, a visiting professor at the department of engineering design IIT-M.
In the past few months, Dr Soma and her team of researchers have made trillions of red blood cells - the carrier of hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to various body tissues and clears up carbon dioxide - on a Petri dish. They cultured adult stem cells derived from cord blood in the presence of some "easily nutritional supplements" for 17 days in the lab.
The stem cells, which are undifferentiated cells with the potential to turn into any cell, developed into red blood cells. The department of biotechnology (DBT) has recently approved a proposal from the scientists to develop a bio-reactor for large-scale production of artificial blood. The reactor will be built with support of IIT's biotechnology department.
"We will simultaneously process papers for performing animal trials with the artificial blood. It will first be tested on anemic mice. If they are able to accept it and survive, we will take it to the next level," he said. Scientists across the world have been working on artificial blood. While a French team has started human trials, a UK team is all set to follow suit. Dr Soma, a heart surgeon, says their research is different because unlike other cases, they have been able to exclusively produce red blood cells. So far nobody has been able to mass produce only red blood cells.
"Almost all earlier attempts have had at least 40% of white blood cells in the culture. Introducing such artificial blood into a patient with a weak immune system could be tricky. As a surgeon, I would prefer only red blood cells," she said.
The IIT scientists say they did not use any expensive enzyme or growth factors. "Despite this, the yield was a billion times high. In a typical RBC blood bag, there are about a trillion (1 followed by 12 zeros) red blood cells. On our Petri dish we had a yield of about a quadrillion (1 followed by 15 zeros) cells from the starting point of about a million stem cells," said Venkatesh Balasubramanian, associate professor in the department of engineering design.
The World Health Organization says a country needs a minimum stock of blood equal to 1% of its population. This means India needs 12 million units of blood, but collects only nine million units annually, though demand has gone up drastically. The cost of blood has gone up in the last few years as blood has to be subjected to several tests to ensure it is disease-free, says Dr K Selvaraju, former state blood transfusion officer. This could be avoided in artificial blood.
It may take at least five years for artificial blood to be available for clinical use as large-scale trials will follow. The research hasn't been published in peer-reviewed science journals owing to the intellectual property concerns of the scientists. The researchers have applied for an Indian patent and are considering an international patent.