British scientists are all set to become the first in the world to use embryonic stem cells for producing unlimited amounts of synthetic human blood, paving the way for infection-free emergency transfusions.
This week, scientists will announce a three-year research project, in which transfusion of "synthetic" blood made from the stem cells of spare IVF embryos will be done for the first time in human volunteers.
If successful, the project could help save the lives of anyone, from the victims of traffic accidents to soldiers on a battlefield, by revolutionising the vital blood transfusion services.
Such services will also help do away with the dependence on a network of human donors to provide a constant supply of fresh blood.
In the study, researchers will test human embryos left over from IVF treatment to find those that are genetically programmed to develop into the "O-negative" blood group, which is the universal donor group whose blood can be transfused into anyone without fear of tissue rejection.
Although O-negative blood group is relatively rare because only seven per cent of the population has it, the researchers believe that it may be produced in unlimited quantities from embryonic stem cells because of their ability to multiply indefinitely in the laboratory.
They are aiming to stimulate embryonic stem cells to develop into mature, oxygen-carrying red blood cells for emergency transfusions.
Such blood would have the benefit of not being at risk of being infected with viruses like HIV and hepatitis, or the human form of "mad cow" disease.
Particularly, the military needs a constant supply of fresh, universal donor blood for battlefield situations when normal supplies from donors can quickly run out.
However, people not happy with the idea of destroying embryos to create stem cells may have difficult ethical issues with the development of blood from the cells of spare IVF embryos.
Professor Marc Turner, of Edinburgh University, the director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, will lead the project.