Lund: Blood transfusions are vital, but demand for blood far exceeds supply all over the world. In India and China, for example, relatives are usually called upon to give blood in the case of an accident or an operation. An international conference in Lund, Sweden, the first of its kind, will now discuss various possible alternative treatment methods with the potential to complement or even replace blood transfusion. These alternatives include re-programmed skin cells and haemoglobin from sugarbeet.
Two of the Lund conference organisers are Johan Flygare and Kenichi Miharada from the Division of Molecular Medicine and Gene Therapy at Lund University. Johan Flygare’s research focuses on the conversion of skin cells into red blood cells.
“We have succeeded in understanding the genetic programming which determines that a cell is to become a red blood cell. This has allowed us to re-programme skin cells from mice into becoming blood cells in just five days, without taking the detour via some form of stem cell. We will soon be moving on to human cells”, explains Johan Flygare.
Kenichi Miharada wants to find a way of mass-producing and storing red blood cells in a partial stage of development, so that they can be produced and “finalised” when needed. The technique could help patients with rare blood groups, who could store their own blood in view of future needs and avoid the difficult search for suitable donors.
The protein responsible for the oxygen transportation of red blood cells is haemoglobin. Haemoglobin can be artificially produced using bacteria, but replacing blood transfusions with transfusions of this kind of haemoglobin is not without risk: the haemoglobin oxidises rapidly, which can lead to inflammation.
However, haemoglobin is present with various functions in almost all bacteria, animals and plants. Another of the conference organisers, Leif Bülow from the Division for Applied Biochemistry at Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering, has found a way of extracting haemoglobin from sugarbeet. Sugarbeet contains the protein in a ”stainless” form which could potentially be developed into a blood replacement product.
“Human haemoglobin only lasts for half and hour before it starts to oxidise. However, haemoglobin from beets lasts for several days, and would therefore be much easier to handle. For example, all ambulances could have a supply of haemoglobin, so that an injured patient could already be given a supplement on the way to the hospital”, says Leif Bülow.
The conference in Lund has three themes. The first is the production of red blood cells, while the second is the production of blood substitutes such as haemoglobin. The third theme is the damage caused by haemoglobin in the wrong context, and how this damage can be prevented and counteracted.
The latter field includes pre-eclampsia, an illness which is thought to depend on haemoglobin leaking from the foetus and passing over to the mother’s blood vessels, among other things. At the conference, Bo Åkerström and Magnus Gram from the Division for Infection Medicine at Lund University will present their research into a new way of detecting and treating pre-eclampsia. The illness is a major problem in the developing world, where it causes millions of deaths per year.