Canadian scientists have transformed pinches of human skin into petri dishes of human blood — a major medical breakthrough that could yield new sources of blood for transfusions after cancer treatments or surgery.
The discovery, by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., could one day potentially allow anyone needing blood after multiple rounds of surgery or chemotherapy, or for blood disorders such as anemia, to have a backup supply of blood created from a tiny patch of their own skin — eliminating the risk of their body’s immune system rejecting blood from a donor.
Researchers predict the lab-grown blood could be ready for testing in humans within two years.
The achievement, published Sunday in the journal Nature, raises the possibility of personalizing blood production for patients for the first time.
“This is a very important discovery. I think it represents a seminal contribution” to the rapidly evolving field of stem-cell research, said Michael Rudnicki, scientific director of the Canadian Stem Cell Network and director of the Regenerative Medicine Program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.
“That one can play with the fate of a cell and force it sideways into something that it doesn’t at all resemble, and then being able to use it, is tremendously exciting.”
The procedure is also relatively simple. It involves taking a small piece of skin just centimetres in size, which would require only a stitch to close, extracting fibroblasts — abundant cells in the skin that make up the connective tissue and give skin its flexibility — and bathing them in growth factors in a petri dish. Next, by adding a single protein that binds to DNA and acts as an on/off switch, the researchers turned on or off some 2,000 genes and reprogrammed the skin cells to differentiate or morph into millions of blood progenitors — the cells the produce blood.