An Anglo-US company may soon offer new hope to patients whose immune systems have been destroyed by HIV or cancer therapy.

Lifeforce says it can effectively have a replacement immune system waiting on ice by taking patients' blood samples and building an entire immune repertoire – and storing it until is needed.

The firm has received permission from the US Food and Drug Administration to begin collecting 480-millilitre samples of blood from healthy individuals. It then plans to extract the white blood cells and keep them as an insurance policy against future disease.

Lifeforce will charge around $800 for taking the initial sample, then $25 per month for storing the cells at -196°C. “That sample would have the complete repertoire of all your white blood cells,” said Del DelaRonde, co-founder of Lifeforce in Newport, UK, told New Scientist magazine.

Blood cell armies

By taking some of the stored cells and exposing them to natural growth factors such as interleukin-2, he said that whole new armies of white blood cells could be grown in the lab and reinfused into the patient.

Many people with cancer undergo similar “adoptive” therapies using immune cells extracted before they have chemo - or radiotherapy, which can destroy immune cells. But there is a risk that such cells won’t work optimally because of their previous exposure to cancer, DelaRonde said. “Instead, we can send them their ‘pristine’ system from 25 years ago.”

In the case of HIV, which progressively destroys immune cells, the process could be repeated perhaps once a year, by multiplying up and re-storing fractions of the samples.

“These things might be possible,” said Dr Francois Villinger of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. He previously showed that the progression of SIV infection, the monkey equivalent of HIV, could be delayed in macaques by using a similar approach. Whether it will work in humans is unknown, he said. Also, some types of white blood cell, such as macrophages, may not survive freezing as well as others, meaning there may be a limit to the number of cells you could regenerate from the samples.

Last month, Lifeforce also won permission to expand its UK operations.