One of the first people to have a transfusion of lab-grown red blood cells says: 'why wouldn’t you do it?'
Press release issued: 15 March 2023
One of the first people to be transfused with red blood cells grown in a laboratory has spoken about her experiences.
Yvonne Smith, 69, from near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, became one of the first of two people to receive red-blood cells in the world leading RESTORE trial (1).
The trial is a joint research initiative by NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) and the University of Bristol, working with the University of Cambridge, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility, and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It is part-funded by a National Institute for Health and Care Research grant.
This is the first time in the world that red blood cells that have been grown in a laboratory have been given to another person in a blood transfusion. NHSBT announced the trial was underway in November. Yvonne is the first recipient to be named.
Yvonne received two injections of up to 10mls of red blood cells, both originating from the same donor. One injection contained red blood cells that grew naturally in the donor. The other injection contained red blood cells that had been grown in a lab from some of the same donor’s stem cells. Yvonne does not know which injection was which. She received regular follow ups to check the health of the transfused red blood cells and her own health. (2) (3)
Yvonne was previously a blood donor herself, making about 60 donations, after being inspired to start by the famous 'The Blood Donor' episode of the TV show Hancock's Half Hour.
However, Yvonne is no longer able to donate herself after a case of breast cancer in 2014.
She said: "I thought 'what else can I do?' I ticked a box and put my name forwards for research.
"I always wanted to be a nurse so it felt normal to help. Years later I was asked about taking part in the RESTORE trial.
"I wasn’t worried about getting the blood that was grown in the lab. They explained everything to me. They wouldn't be doing it if there was a good chance something would go awry. It was straight forward. I am not squeamish. The injections were into my arm on the side of the elbow, where you donate blood. I couldn't tell which one injection was the lab grown blood.
"I would encourage anybody to do it. There’s nothing to fear. You are just getting a little bit of blood and it’s going to help other people. I know the research could help people with sickle cell and other diseases where it's difficult to find matching blood. Otherwise those people have a raw deal.
"So why wouldn’t you do it? I hope just hope some good comes from it."
Yvonne is a retired civil servant with two children and two stepchildren. She has volunteered for 20 years in a primary school and for 18 years with a National Trust sewing group making costumes.
If proved safe and effective, manufactured blood cells could in time revolutionise treatments for people with blood disorders such as sickle cell and rare blood types. It can be difficult to find enough well-matched donated blood for some people with these disorders.
The trial is studying the lifespan of the lab grown cells compared with infusions of standard red blood cells from the same donor. The lab-grown blood cells are all fresh, so the trial team expect them to perform better than a similar transfusion of standard donated red cells, which contains cells of varying ages.
The trial is the first step towards making lab grown red blood cells available as a future clinical product. For the foreseeable future, manufactured cells could only be used for a very small number of patients with very complex transfusions needs. NHSBT continues to rely on the generosity of donors.
Ashley Toye, Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Bristol and Director of the NIHR BTRU in red blood cell products and responsible for the delivery of the trial for the funders, said: "I had a fantastic opportunity to be able to thank Yvonne in person. We are so thankful to all our participants for helping make this ground breaking clinical trial happen."
Co-Chief Investigator Dr Rebecca Cardigan, Head of Component Development NHS Blood and Transplant and Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, added: "We are completely reliant on the generosity of our volunteers. You can’t underestimate the contribution that people like Yvonne have made towards making lab grown blood available for transfusion in the future."
Co-Chief Investigator Cedric Ghevaert, Professor in Transfusion Medicine and Consultant Haematologist the University of Cambridge and NHS Blood and Transplant, explained: "This clinical trial is groundbreaking because it is a first time we are producing red cells in the laboratory in such a way we can compare how they behave after transfusion compared to standard donated red cells. We are immensely grateful to our trial participants. Without them, this clinical trial would never see the light of day."
Steve Barclay, Health and Social Care Secretary, said: "We are proudly supporting this world-leading research which has the potential to transform the lives of those with diseases including sickle cell. I look forward to hearing more on how the results of the trial can support the system to deliver the best possible care to patients and if effective, revolutionise some people’s search for well-matched blood."
(1) RESTORE is a clinical trial initiated by a joint research unit from NHS Blood and Transplant and the University of Bristol called the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit in Red Blood Cell Products. The unit is working with the University of Cambridge, Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility, and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It is part-funded by a National Institute for Health and Care Research grant. The red blood cells are grown at NHSBT’s Advanced Therapies Unit in the Cellular and Molecular Therapies function in Filton from blood donors who have agreed to take part in the study. The cells are labelled with a tracer element by the Radiopharmacy Unit at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital so they can be tracked through the recipient’s body when they are transfused. Recipient volunteers are recruited through the Recipient volunteers are recruited through the NIHR BioResource and study clinical team and receive their infusions in the NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility. Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust provides pharmacy, laboratory, and research support.
(2) Donors were recruited from NHSBT’s blood donor base. They donated blood to the trial and stem cells were separated out from their blood. These stem cells were then grown to produce red blood cells in a laboratory at NHS Blood and Transplant’s Advanced Therapies Unit in Bristol. The recipients of the blood were recruited from healthy members of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) BioResource.
(3) A minimum of 10 participants will receive two mini transfusions at least four months apart, one of standard donated red cells and one of lab grown red cells, to find out if the young red blood cells made in the laboratory last longer than cells made in the body.
About NHS Blood and Transplant
NHS Blood and Transplant is a joint England and Wales Special Health Authority. We provide the blood donation service for England and the organ donation service for the UK. We also provide donated tissues, stem cells and cord blood. We are an essential part of the NHS, saving and improving lives through public donation.
About the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR)
The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do this by:
- Funding high quality, timely research that benefits the NHS, public health and social care;
- Investing in world-class expertise, facilities and a skilled delivery workforce to translate discoveries into improved treatments and services;
- Partnering with patients, service users, carers and communities, improving the relevance, quality and impact of our research;
- Attracting, training and supporting the best researchers to tackle complex health and social care challenges;
- Collaborating with other public funders, charities and industry to help shape a cohesive and globally competitive research system;
- Funding applied global health research and training to meet the needs of the poorest people in low and middle income countries.
NIHR is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its work in low and middle income countries is principally funded through UK Aid from the UK government.