Stem cell research has yielded results within the last few years, from developments in growing “cultured meat” to potentially producing unlimited amounts of blood. These are not intended as replacements for what is currently used, but as an addition or plan B when quantities are limited.
Scientists in the US and England have made breakthroughs in growing meat from stem cells. This would address the moral issue of slaughtering animals for meat, and the environmental issue of greenhouse gas emissions caused by traditional meat processing. The first lab-grown meat was made in 2012, but was very costly. Currently, it costs over $10,000 to make one meat patty, but hopefully, according to scientists, this will be cut to $11 within a span of about four years. To produce a cultured beef patty, scientists harvest a small amount of stem cells from muscle tissue, which is then grown into muscle fiber. Fat cells are added to give the beef most of its moisture and flavor. Cultured meat is estimated to come to supermarkets within five to ten years. This includes not just beef; scientists have successfully grown pork as well, using skeletal muscle stem cells.
Stem cells can also be used to make artificial blood, supposedly be more efficient than donor blood—and especially useful for people with rare blood types. According to Jane Frayne, a researcher at University of Bristol in England, “Cultured red blood cells have advantages over donor blood, such as reduced risk of infectious disease transmission.” One drawback, however, is that cultured red blood cells do not appear in as large numbers as donated blood, also dying off more quickly. Each stem cell makes about 50,000 red blood cells, while a donated bag of blood contains one trillion red blood cells. Frayne’s research team, though, was able to trap cells in an early development stage, and found a way to continuously reproduce red blood cells before they die off. This method would not replace blood donation, but would instead be more useful to people with rare diseases such as sickle-cell, and again, those with rare blood types.
Despite progress, there is a long way to go. Both advancements are still very costly, and neither has yet passed all tests for regulatory approval. Nevertheless, within the next decade, lab-grown meat may appear on dinner tables, and cultured red blood cells could save lives.