SMART researchers develop fast, efficient way to produce red blood cells


RESEARCHERS from Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, have discovered a new way to manufacture human red blood cells (RBCs) that cuts the culture time by half compared to existing methods and uses novel sorting and purification methods that are faster, more precise and less costly.

Blood transfusions save millions of lives every year, but over half the world’s countries do not have sufficient blood supply to meet their needs. The ability to manufacture RBCs on demand, especially the universal donor blood (O+), would significantly benefit those in need of transfusion for conditions like leukemia by circumventing the need for large volume blood draws and difficult cell isolation processes.

Easier and faster manufacturing of RBCs would also have a significant impact on blood banks worldwide and reduce dependence on donor blood which has a higher risk of infection. It is also critical for disease research such as malaria which affects over 220 million people annually, and can even enable new and improved cell therapies.

However, manufacturing RBCs is time-consuming and creates undesirable by-products, with current purification methods being costly and not optimal for large scale therapeutic applications. SMART’s researchers have thus designed an optimised intermediary cryogenic storage protocol that reduces the cell culture time to 11 days post-thaw, eliminating the need for continuous 23-day blood manufacturing. This is aided by complementary technologies the team developed for highly efficient, low-cost RBC purification and more targeted sorting.

In a paper titled “Microfluidic label-free bioprocessing of human reticulocytes from erythroid culture” recently published in the prestigious journal Lab on a Chip, the researchers explain the huge technical advancements they have made towards improving RBC manufacturing. The study was carried out by researchers from two of SMART’s Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs) –  Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) and Critical Analytics for Manufacturing Personalised-Medicine (CAMP) – co-led by Principal Investigators Jongyoon Han, a Professor at MIT, and Peter Preiser, a Professor at NTU. The team also included AMR and CAMP IRG faculty appointed at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

“Our novel sorting and purification methods result in significantly faster cell processing time and can be easily integrated into current cell manufacturing processes. The process also does not require a trained technician to perform sample handling procedures and is scalable for industrial production,” Dr Kwek continues.

The results of their research would give scientists faster access to final cell products that are fully functional with high purity at a reduced cost of production.