Blood donation is fraught with arcane restrictions and a mess of complex requirements meant to keep the blood supply as safe as possible (I can’t give, for instance, because I lived in England in the early 1990s. Thanks a lot, mad cow scare.) But one of its most controversial—a lifetime ban on donation by men who’ve had sex with other men—may finally be coming to an end.
Massachusetts lawmakers like Senator John Kerry are pushing an overturn of the ban. The Red Cross, American Medical Association, and American Association of Blood Banks all want the lifetime ban to go away, though the Red Cross supports in its stead a single-year donation ban dating back to the last sexual encounter.
The lifetime ban was enacted in 1983 before AIDS was widely understood and has long infuriated gay rights groups since it applies to all gay men regardless of their HIV status. Heterosexuals who engage in risky behavior, like having sex with prostitutes or HIV-positive partners, are only banned from giving blood for a year [Boston Globe].
A high-powered consortium in the United Kingdom has declared a push to create synthetic blood from embryonic stem cells over the next decade. “In principle, we could provide an unlimited supply of blood in this way” [BBC News], says researcher Marc Turner. Synthetic blood would be guaranteed to be free of viruses like HIV, and could also prevent shortages at blood banks, emergency rooms, and battlefield operations.
While the American biotech company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced last August that they had developed a technique of creating blood from embryonic stem cells, the new UK effort has more significant institutional backing. The multimillion-pound deal involving NHS [National Health Service] Blood and Transplant, the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service and the Wellcome Trust, the world’s biggest medical research charity, means Britain will take centre stage in the global race to develop blood made from embryonic stem cells [The Independent].
Using embryonic stem cells, researchers have created enough red blood cells to fill several test tubes, in a development that could eventually allow for the mass-production of blood and the end of blood donation drives. “We literally generated whole tubes in the lab, from scratch,” said Robert Lanza, chief science officer at Advanced Cell Technologies [Wired News].
The breakthrough raises the prospect of mass-producing supplies of the “universal donor” blood type O-negative, which is prized because it can be safely transfused into any patient, whatever their blood group. This type of blood is in short supply – around 8% of Caucasians have it, and just 0.3% of Asians [New Scientist]. Experts say the method would also help keep pathogens like HIV out of the blood supply, as blood banks would no longer have to screen the blood from thousands of donors.