KEVIN CURTIS—Getty Images/Science Photo Library RM
By Alice Park
October 22, 2015
TIME Health
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We generally only hear about blood shortages during a natural disaster, but the truth is that blood banks are often in short supply. That’s a risky situation for patients who undergo intensive surgery and may need several pints of blood in order to recover.

Reporting in the journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists describe a promising new way for producing precious red blood cells, which perform the critical oxygen-ferrying duties of blood, at volumes greater than current methods typically yield.

Dr. Vijay Sankaran, assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, and his colleagues took blood stem cells, which are the cells that mature into all of the blood cells, and performed genetic surgery on them to make them more likely to produce more red blood cells. They found a particular gene, identified in previous studies, that is linked to lower levels of red blood cells. Turning off this gene, Sankaran figured, might be a way to release the brakes on the process and boost the numbers of red blood cells.

Indeed, that’s what he and this team saw. The process of surgically altering the gene in question and coaxing the stem cells to develop and produce blood cells, resulted in a tripling of the number of red blood cells compared to control stem cells that were simply allowed to grow in a lab dish.

The findings could potentially be a new way to generate more much-needed blood for medical procedures, he says. “We know that if we can make these cells, and improve upon the process, hopefully future blood shortages will not be a problem at all,” says Sankaran.

There are other potential uses of the technique too. If it works for blood stem cells, it might also work for other cells types that we might need to generate in greater volume, including muscle and nerve cells destroyed by disease. “We can imagine other cell types we want to produce in regenerative medicine where we can get increased yields of cells,” he says.

Drug makers might also find the results useful, since it provides a new way of delivery medications directly to cells. Using blood cells to ferry drugs can help patients to benefit from their effects without some of the challenging immune reactions that other vehicles might trigger.

For now, the strategy needs to be repeated and optimized to make it commercially attractive. But with current methods for generating blood from stem cells costing up to $15,000 per unit of blood, it’s a welcome alternative that researchers will likely want to test quickly.

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