Scientists have turned clumps of human skin into blood cells in a feat that could revolutionise cancer therapy and the treatment of blood disorders, such as anaemia.
Patients who need blood for surgery or a medical condition could have a healthy supply created for transfusion by using a patch of their own skin, researchers said.
The technique could benefit leukaemia patients, for example, by providing them with a source of blood that exactly matches their biological make-up. Similar transfusions might help other cancer patients endure chemo- and radiotherapy, which has the side effect of destroying the body’s blood-making cells.
Creating healthy blood
Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, took skin cells from adults and newborn babies and converted them into blood cells by adding a gene called OCT4, with some chemicals known as blood growth factors.
Depending on the chemicals used, the skin cells became various kinds of cells that together make up healthy blood. They included early stage red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, white blood cells, which fight infection, and platelets that enable blood to clot.
“If the patient has anaemia, they need only red blood cells, so we can change the recipe and make those. If we wanted to treat someone with a blood coagulation disorder, we would change the recipe again and make platelets,” said Mickie Bhatia, scientific director at the university’s Stem Cell and Cancer Institute.
Cynthia Dunbar of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Maryland, United States, said producing blood from a patient’s own skin cells had the potential to make bone marrow transplants and a shortage of blood donors “a thing of the past”.
“I can see this blood being used for anyone undergoing cancer therapy. In chemotherapy the patient usually has to withdraw because the blood system dies as an innocent bystander. We hope our technique will provide an alternative, healthy blood source that allows patients to continue therapy and eradicate the tumour.”