Scientists from Monash University's Australian Stem Cell Center have announced the creation of a genetic tool that may open the way for production of unlimited amounts of a safe transfusable blood product in unlimited quantities.
According to them, this breakthrough could be a lifesaver as well help fight AIDS and other blood-borne diseases.
At the same time, the researchers believe they could be courting controversy , as the procedure involves the use of embryonic stem cells.
Acknowledging that blood production was "still some way off", team leader Ed Stanley said he believed blood could be created free of viruses or any unknown blood-borne disease.Colleague Andrew Elefanty and Stanley head a group of 20 researchers at Monash working on the project.
"It's an exciting time in this area of research to take stem cells that can become anything and get them to specifically become blood cells," Stanley was quoted.
"We have made a couple of cell finds that show us we are heading in the right direction", he added.
Meanwhile, Elefanty claims his team had found a "particular protein" that only red blood cells make. A "color tagged" solution was inserted into this protein, which could help identify only those cells that made that red blood protein."This gives us a way of testing what factors work," Elefanty says.
While embryonic stem cells are able to replicate and so create a limitless supply, the Monash scientists are still working on how to make the embryonic cells stable so they do not turn cancerous.
The ASCC has narrowed its research focus for the past year and a half, putting half of its resources into trying to manufacture red blood cells.
The center was founded in 2002 and has been given $115 million since 1997 by the Commonwealth and Victorian governments.ASCC public affairs director Michelle Singe informed that the decision to concentrate on developing a product with blood stem cells was an "educated risk".
"We believe this is possibly the most achievable of goals to aim towards within our limited 10 years of funding," she was quoted.
Meanwhile in U.S, embryonic stem cell technology companies are awaiting the 2008 elections, with an ill-concealed urgency. Many expect the next White House and Congress to reverse the ban on federal subsidies for ESC research.
"The dominant thinking is that regime change, whether Republican or Democratic, will move the ball forward in terms of the federal funds embargo on human embryonic stem cell research," says Geoffrey Crouse, vice president of a life science unit.
For officials at Geron GERN, a Calif.-based biotech, an end to the federal funding barrier cannot come soon enough."An enormous amount of scientific damage has been done," says Thomas Okarma, Geron's president and chief executive. "I assume whoever is elected will change the policy."
To promote the cause, Okarma plans to start contacting presidential candidates and even show them findings Geron reported on Aug. 27. Animal studies showed transplanted human embryonic stem cells improved heart function after a heart attack.
Some experts opine Washington brings about bad science when it limits federal funds to non-embryonic stem cell research. Scientists might know the approved stem cells for which they can get funding won't work. But they still do the research to get the money.
Written before the discovery of human embryonic stem cells, the ban on federal funding for stem-cell research bars the use of federal money for creation of human embryos for research and for research in which human embryos are destroyed.
The ban includes embryos created in laboratories from sperm and eggs left over after procedures at in-vitro fertilization clinics.