Yesterday, I drove to my local donor center, went through the short screening that determines if I’m healthy enough to donate, and then gave blood. My blood type, O-, is known as the “universal donor”, meaning it can be safely donated to anyone in an emergency, without having to check the recipient’s blood type first. (I, on the other hand, can only safely receive O- blood, so while my blood can be safely donated to everyone, my body is very picky about what it will accept.)
Because I’m a universal donor, when the waiting period between donations is up (it takes 56 days for red blood cells to replenish themselves), I often get a phone call or email encouraging me to come in. I rarely need it – I make sure, when I leave, that I note when I’ll be eligible again, set a reminder in my calendar, and then work it into my schedule. But I still get the reminders – less than half of the population can safely donate, and not enough of us do.
That lack of volunteer donors creates a problem: the demand for blood often exceeds the supply. Science has been seeking an answer to this problem for decades, including producing synthetic blood products. However, nothing has replaced human blood… until now.
Actually, that’s not even really fair to say. Scientists in Scotland have gotten permission to pursue human trials of a synthetic blood product, but this product still has a human source. Grown from human stem cells, it takes a source of immature, not-yet-differentiated blood cells, clones them, and then mass produces blood from this stem cell line. Nor are these the controversial embryonic stem cells – these come from adult donors.
So this synthetic blood has an entirely human source, but is then mass produced outside of a human body. Before it can be widely accepted in hospitals around the world, it must go through rigorous testing, and this is the step being carried out now in Scotland. The first human trials have been approved. This means that healthy men and women will be given the new blood product and monitored. As long as there are no adverse reactions, testing will continue.
I’m certain there will always be a need for donors like me. But the fact that we may have a viable alternative means that maybe, someday, people need never die from a lack of safe blood again.