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Is this the future of medicine? Synthetic blood could buy patients 48 extra hours

Erythromer, a nanoscale bio-synthetic artificial red cell

Finding blood donors continues to present a challenge across the United States, with hospitals and medical professionals often citing a blood shortage in areas of the country. And while there’s no doubt that we still need folks to visit their local blood drives with hopes of saving a life with their donation, science has stepped in with a new temporary solution. Two scientists — Dr. Andre Palmer of the Ohio State University and Dr. Dipanjan Pan, an associate professor in the department of bioengineering at the University of Illinois — have now independently developed two synthetic blood technologies.

Dr. Pan’s product is called ErythroMer, and while it is not, in fact, a blood substitute, it is an “oxygen carrier that can be given as an oxygen-delivery vehicle that can kind of act as a stop-gap measure to keep the injured alive until they get to the hospital,” Pan told Engadget. Essentially, ErythroMer is a manmade hemoglobin — the protein in red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen to various parts of the body. Because ErythroMer is produced in powder form, it’s capable of being stored for up to six months, which is significantly longer than the shelf life of actual human blood — even when it’s stored properly on ice it can only last up to 42 days. Moreover, because this hemoglobin molecule is artificial, there is a reduced risk of transferring blood-borne diseases like HIV or Zika during transfusions.

As it stands, Pan and his colleagues are hoping to use ErythroMer in military applications, though if successful, the synthetic  blood could doubtless be used in civilian operations as well. Excitingly, NASA has already expressed interest in the synthetic blood, as it may come in handy as astronauts are sent to planets beyond our own.

Meanwhile, Dr. Palmer has created a polymerized hemoglobin, or PolyHb, that is quite similar to Erythromer. It is also based on natural hemoglobin, then encased in a polymer, and is meant “to give the patient enough time to get to a hospital to get a blood transfusion because ultimately, if you lose blood, the best thing you can be transfused with is blood,” as Palmer noted. Again, like Erythromer, PolyHb can be delivered in powdered form, which cuts down on its weight and mass by 50 percent.

This is important as it means that PolyHb is particularly portable, which could be hugely important when treating wounded soldiers on battlefields, or patients in difficult to access areas. All PolyHb needs to be reconstituted is some purified water — then, the powdered platelets can be transfused as needed. PolyHb buys patients up to 48 hours of extra time, which could be the difference between life or death in many medical situations.

While all of these advances are certainly met with excitement by the medical community, there are, of course, still shortcomings. Currently, neither ErythroMer nor PolyHb can do more than transport oxygen — while this is a major function of blood, it’s not the only function, which means  that you couldn’t replace your entire bloodstream with these synthetic solutions.

As Palmer told Engadget, “You’d have the oxygen-carrying therapeutic, and then you’d have something that initiates clotting, for example. So it is possible to mix two different therapeutics together to achieve extra functions.” We’re just waiting on that possibility to become a reality.

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