What are the implications of scientists creating “immortal” cell lines comprised of healthy red blood cells for transplant and research?

An article written by CNN producer Michael Nedelman reports that British scientists, led by University of Bristol researcher Jan Frayne, are close to finding the “holy grail” to ease blood shortages, especially for those with rare blood types. According to the article:

To ramp up production, the UK researchers infected stem cells with cervical cancer genes. By inserting cancer genes from human papilloma virus (HPV) into bone marrow cells, Frayne and her colleagues were able to create the first adult red blood cells that could multiply an infinite number of times. These cells are referred to as “immortal.”

The concept may be a familiar one to those who have read the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” in which a related strain of HPV led to the production of HeLa cells, which are widely used in scientific research. These cells were taken from a cervical cancer biopsy from Lacks, who passed away in 1951 but whose cells still multiply in laboratories today.

As the red blood cells mature, they spit out the nucleus — the core that houses their DNA — giving the cells a signature round, dimpled shape. Fraye and her colleagues filtered those cells from the rest, so the final batch did not contain the active cancer genes.

Dr. Frayne recognizes that making vast quantities of the cells is beyond the reach of a research lab. “We have to have company interest,” she said.

I suggest when you think about the eventual size and scope of such a project, consider the quantities of HeLa cells ever produced.

One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown on a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons- an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the Earth at least 3 times more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall. –From “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks