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The Blood Substitute That Ohio State Researchers Hope Will Save Lives

Ohio State University
Dr. Andre Palmer (center) is working with other researchers on the hemoglobin-based material.

Synthetic blood is the Holy Grail for doctors. And though a true version has so far escaped scientsts, researchers at Ohio State University think they may have at least found a temporary solution.

The idea behind synthetic blood is that it could alleviate shortages in places like war zones where it’s hard to store donated blood.

"If you lose a lot of blood volume, the best thing that a physician can transfuse you with is packed red cells," says Dr. Andre Palmer of Ohio State's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. 

In the middle of combat, though, a transfusion is difficult to pull off, for a number of reasons.

"If you're in Iraq or Afghanistan, you get shot, you bleed out, the combat medic does not have a cold unit of red cells available for transfusion," Palmer says.

What they can do, though, is buy soldiers time.

Palmer's researchers say they’re turning expired human blood and cow blood into a material that can potentially serve as a bridge - keeping people alive until they can receive that red blood cell transfusion.

Palmer says this material, which can be produced in either powder or liquid form, is made from the blood protein hemoglobin and can be stored at room temperature for years without degrading.

Regular blood, meanwhile, expires 42 days after donation.

And because the hemoglobin-based material does not express blood-type antigens, Palmer says, it can be used on anyone, regardless of their blood type.

“This material would give the soldier enough time to get medevacked to a health care facility to get a red-cell transfusion," he says.

The material is still in the research phase, but Palmer says trials with small animals have shown promising results.

"We have a hemorrhagic shock model, where you would take out 50 percent of the animal's blood valume, send the animal into shock, and then resuscitate the animals with the test materials, and they work well," Palmer says. "They keep the animals alive."

It's a promising start, attracting a lot of attention - and funding. This year, Palmer's various projects have received a total of $5.5 million in research grants from the National Institute of Health, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

As for when a truly synthetic blood will be available for doctors?

“That’s really hard to predict,” Palmer says. “There’s still a lot of basic research that has to be done to figure out the side effects of these materials and strategies to mitigate side effects.”

One possibility for minimizing side effects, such as tissue injury, is making the hemoglobin-based molecules larger in size. That way, the cells don’t cross the blood vessel wall into the surrounding tissue.

And the soldiers can make their way to safety.