Synthetic Blood Development Given The Go-Ahead At Scottish Center For Regenerative Medicine: Eat Your Heart Out 'True Blood' Fans

blood
Synthetic blood development may become a possibility at a recently licensed research facility in Scotland. Flickr, bedrocan

Researchers at the Scottish Center for Regenerative Medicine (SCRM) have finally been given the green light in their efforts to catalyze synthetic blood development.

After decades mired in controversy, legal battles, and ethical dilemmas the United Kingdom's Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) granted a license that will allow researchers at the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, Edinburgh University, and Roslin Cells to set up a facility for the testing of synthetic blood in human trials.

The researchers will use adults stem cells, which they can force into mimicking embryonic stem cells, for the purpose of developing artificial blood, which will then be used to assist — if not completely replace — the current blood banks, as well as eliminate the risk of infusion-related infections.

"Attaining these licenses has been a key goal for the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine," said Janet Downie, chief operating officer at Roslin Cells, "And we are delighted to have reached this important milestone."

The Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil mirrored Downie's enthusiasm. "Scotland has a world-class reputation in regenerative medicine and stem cell research," he said. "The completion of this state-of-the-art facility will further advance our understanding of the debilitating diseases this field seeks to address and their potential therapies."

Ruha Bejamin, sociologist at Boston University, has her concerns about the controversial procedure and its global implications. Issues of compensation, exploitation, and patenting all pose bona fide risks to Benjamin.

When human trials, and later on clinical trials if the researchers can obtain those specific licenses, require invasive procedures, the subjects expect compensation. Benjamin notes the majority of people relatively well-off are not the ones signing up for a stem cell trial. So couple the working class subject pool with a medical community that needs "pharmaceutically naïve" patients — those who have taken minimal medication before — and second- and third-world countries become an attractive place to recruit participants.

Benjamin says these incentives misguidedly open the door for exploitation.

"It's a regulatory question [researchers] have to ask: 'What kind of place will allow us to come in and gather data and not put up as many barriers?'" Benjamin told Wired. "Often, these tend to be countries that have weaker governments, or that don't have their own research community that would feel threatened by outside researchers coming in." Benjamin says this type of research perpetuates a North-South dynamic that isn't conducive for worldwide scientific expansion.

Then there's the issue of patents, which currently enjoys significant media attention. Benjamin has doubts that synthetic blood will go the way of Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine; rather, it will fall into the hands of the international market and prices for the blood will skyrocket.

To put total faith in Benjamin's claims is to be perhaps overly hasty; the SCRM has yet to secure any licenses past the one allowing a testing facility to be built. The MHRA and other regulatory agencies require further permission before any other clinical trials may commence.

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