Everyone is enjoying their summer run of HBO's True Blood, yes? Our team of brooding vampires and charming Louisianans seem to be up to their usual high jinks. For those not into the show, it's premised on the invention of TruBlood, a synthetic human blood substitute. A few years before the show begins, the Japanese have invented the stuff, and for the first time, vampires can subsist without killing people. They decide that now is the time to come out of the coffin—err, closet—and go mainstream.
But producing synthetic human blood has been a grail of sorts of the medical profession for decades. Imagine, no more public-service messages on the radio, begging for donations, no more blood donor trucks. If synthetic blood came into being, there would be no more searching for exact blood types, or fear of contracting blood-born diseases from transfusions. Heck, the entire blood-for-cookie market would collapse, and I mean that in the best way possible. And it may actually happen, possibly within the next few years.
Last year, scientists working for Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) published results in the journal Blood that showed they could produce functioning, oxygen-carrying red blood cells from stem cells. By selecting stem cells from embryos that produce O-negative blood (universal donor), ACT could theoretically produce synthetic blood that anyone could receive.
But they have a scaling problem. ACT managed to produce five billion red blood cells from a single stem cell. But a liter of adult blood contains between four and six trillion red blood cells. The Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (ScotBlood), a kind of Red Cross for the UK, will try to pick up where ACT left off, developing technology that will allow for industrial-scale production of synthetic blood. Marc Turner, a Edinburgh University scientist and head of ScotBlood, hopes to have a proof of concept within a few years, but he told the BBC he thinks it could be 10 years before full production is a reality.
Of course, the one question really left outstanding is this: Once we have TruBlood, will we also find out that there have been vampires living among us? 'Cause I've been watching the show, and I'm not sure that's such a good thing.