There were news stories afoot this week with somewhat breathless headlines that suggested a medical breakthrough was at hand: “In a 1st, two people receive transfusions of lab-grown blood cells.” A headline like that certainly catches the eye, especially as the holidays approach and the inevitable calls for increased blood donations that always seem to happen this time of year as the supply gets pinched. Does a headline like that mean that someone is working on completely artificial blood?
As always with this sort of thing, the answer is a mixed bag. Yes, a team in the UK has transfused two patients with a small amount of lab-grown red blood cells, and it’s the first time that particular procedure has been performed. But while the headline is technically correct, the amount transfused was very small, so the day when lab-grown whole blood transfusions replace donated blood isn’t exactly here yet. But the details of what was done and why it was attempted are the really interesting part here, and it’s worth a deep dive because it does potentially point the way to a future where totally synthetic blood may be a real thing.