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Remember how scary it was when HIV was found in the blood supply?

I remember it well. It was in the early 1980's. In fact we still worry about contaminated blood. But if a new advance in stem cell technology pans out, we won't have to worry about that. We'll be able to mass produce healthy red blood cells.

Wow, that'd really change things.

What scientists did was develop a sequence of nutrients and growth factors that signal embryonic stem cells to become red blood cells.

When this process is naturally occuring in the body, one of the key steps as red blood cells mature is the loss of the nucleus.

The latest breakthrough was the achievement of this enucleation.

In the lab, these artificially derived red blood cells deliver oxygen just as well as normal red blood cells. Except there's only one problem: the cells are the wrong types.

The right type is one that can be donated to anyone and that's O negative blood. Unfortunately there are no O negative embryonic stem cells legally available for study by labs receiving federal funding.

That's because in 2001 President Bush stopped federal funding for the creation or study of new stem cell lines. As a result, scientists in this study were limited to what was already available.

So how can we proceed despite the restriction on the use of embryonic stem cells? Other researchers have shown that they can reprogram adult cells into an embryonic state using viruses to insert certain genes to reset their developmental program.

These reprogrammed embryonic cells could then be tricked into becoming O negative red blood cells.

Unfortunately, using viruses has limitations of its own. Until scientists in the US are allowed to make new embryonic stem cell lines, we have few other options.

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For more information…

An article in the New Scientist provides a readable article of this first report of red blood cells grown from embryonic stem cells. It also has an interesting blog that follows up on some interesting points.
For more information…

The original scientific journal article reporting the production of red blood cells from embryonic stem cells can be read here. This is probably not from everyone a bit of a heavy read.

The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey offers an excellent short overview of embryonic stem cells written by a non-scientist, but reviewed and edited by a scientist. If you are not sure what these cells are and what their potential is check it out here.

A Chapter of a textbook provides the details of red blood cell development called erythropoiesis can be read here.


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