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Jo Mountford is making billions of red blood cells in a laboratory in Glasgow. And now she wants to scale-up production. Big time.
Mountford, from the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow, started trying to create blood in the lab in 2007 and is now able to create it on demand.
In 2008, her team produced 100,000 red blood cells; by 2014 output had reached ten billion cells for the year. The ten billion cells were stored in 88 flasks and made up 8.8 litres of blood.
The team – funded by the Wellcome Trust and incorporating universities and organisations from around the UK – is now able to produce the cells in 30-31 days. "We can choose what blood group we make," Mountford told the audience at WIRED Health.
And the key to growing red blood cells? Manufacturing stem cells.
Novosang, the organisation created by Mountford and her colleagues, aims to create the blood to meet the "increasing pressure" on blood transfusions. With around 90 million transfusions needed worldwide each year, the need for more blood is acute.
Mountford said there were both challenges for the developed and undeveloped world, especially where malaria and HIV remain endemic.
But the biggest challenge for blood supplies around the world is the ageing of the global population. The "increased need" for blood supplies was "going up dramatically", she said. In 2015 the NHS noticed a sharp drop in the number of new blood donors had put UK stockpiles at risk.
To tackle the rising demand for blood, and to help bring its ''as nature" product to a level where it can be tested and considered for human trials, Mountford is now trying to industrialise the production.
To do that, a bioreactor system has been created, which can produce ten litres of blood in one go – but the project is far from a conclusion. Blood production in bioreactors needs to be sped up and it also needs to be done more quickly. And then there are the regulatory issues of using lab-grown blood on humans.
"What we're doing now is moving towards an era of regenerative medicine, underpinned by cellular therapy," said Mountford.