Patients with immune disorders or diseases that require frequent blood transfusions may in the future get new blood and immune cells out of their own skin.

A study published in Nature Communications describes how researchers in Singapore managed to use mouse skin cells to create different types of blood cells that could last for months in the mice, whereas previous efforts showed results for only a couple of weeks. The scientists — from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research — were able to use a “cocktail of four factors” on the skin cells to make them take on the features of the various blood cells, effectively changing them into those different cells.

“On the face of it, skin cells and blood cells couldn’t be more different from one another,” study first author Cheng Hui said in a statement from the institute. But the process could be a lifesaving tool: The study notes that the alternative method could help patients in need rather than having to rely on a matching bone marrow donor and “the low frequency of stem cells in stored cord blood” to create blood cells. “This is not only of practical importance for regenerative medicine in terms of potentially yielding a source of new blood or immune cells, but it is also interesting from a fundamental biological perspective that two very different cells — like skin and blood — can be interconverted,” researcher Kyle Loh said in a statement.

Blood transfusions are common, the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute notes. About 5 million Americans get one every year, for reasons like serious injuries and surgeries that cause blood loss, infections that stop the body from properly making blood, bleeding disorders like hemophilia and illnesses like anemia and cancer. Certain autoimmune disorders that affect the blood could require frequent transfusions. In all of those cases, the transfusions can include the blood as a whole or just certain parts, like red cells, white cells, plasma or platelets.

One of the next steps for the Singapore researchers is to see if the process of converting skin cells to blood cells in mice can be replicated in humans. If it can, it would “be a potential game-changer for regenerative medicine,” Ng Huck Hui of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research said in the statement.

Source: Lim B, Cheng H, Ang HY, et al. Reprogramming mouse fibroblasts into engraftable myeloerythroid and lymphoid progenitors. Nature Communications. 2016.