Blood Substitutes: Science Fiction or Science Fact?

I’ve been a Conversational Marketing Expert (CME) here at Incept for a year, and let me tell you, it’s not always easy!

Working with donors to find a convenient time for them to come in and donate blood is a rewarding job, but it can also be a challenge as well. Everyone gets busy with family and work, and it can be hard to find the time to stop by a blood drive to donate a pint of blood.

Unfortunately, the need for blood is constant. About 1 in every 7 people going into the hospital will need a blood transfusion, and the average blood recipient needs about 3 pints of blood. Presently, there is no substitute for human blood – it can only come from donors. With as far as our medical technology has advanced in recent years, why haven’t we been able to simply make synthetic blood?

Scientists have been trying to find a suitable blood substitute ever since William Harvey published his book explaining how blood flows through the body in 1628. Everything from milk and beer to animal blood was tested to see if it could be used to treat blood loss. More often than not, however, these early transfusions were fatal. It wasn’t until 1795 that the first successful human-to-human blood transfusion was achieved. Even then, there was only about a 50% success rate due to the lack of knowledge regarding blood types.

The problem with creating a synthetic blood product lies in the hemoglobin. Within an article in Science Daily, Professor Chris Cooper, a biochemist and blood substitute expert at the University of Essex, explains that hemoglobin is a molecule inside red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. However, if hemoglobin escapes the red blood cell, it can become toxic in large quantities.

“Basically, hemoglobin produces free radicals that can damage the heart and kidneys,” explained Professor Cooper. “The trick with artificial blood is to modify the molecule to be less toxic but still perform the vital role of carrying oxygen around the body. No one has managed this yet.”

Pharmaceutical companies worked on blood substitutes throughout the 80’s and 90’s but faced a lot of difficulty. Many of the blood substitutes tested have had adverse effects on the recipient. Heart attacks, strokes, rises and drops in blood pressure, and even the collapse of capillaries in the body were some of the side effects encountered.

But there is hope on the horizon!

There are currently two main types of blood substitute being tested and the results, to this point, seem promising. Hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers (HBOCs) and perflourocarbons (PFCs) are in the final phases of testing and might be available soon.

Hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers, or HBOCs, are made from real, sterilized hemoglobin, which can come from several different places, including expired human blood, cow blood, genetically modified bacteria (that can produce hemoglobin) and even human placentas. Unfortunately, there are still a few side effects that need worked out. According to an article in Discovery Health, “The modified hemoglobin molecules can fit into very small spaces between cells and bond to nitric oxide, which is important to maintaining blood pressure. This can cause a patient’s blood pressure to rise to dangerous levels. HBOCs can also cause abdominal discomfort and cramping.”

Perflourocarbons, also called PFCs, are designed to carry gases throughout the body and are most often mixed with fluids used in intravenous drugs like lecithin or albumin. Many people who receive PFC treatments also are given oxygen, but this extra oxygen can cause the release of free radicals into the blood stream and cause patients to experience flu-like symptoms.

We  may be close to a solution to blood shortages, but for now hospitals must still rely on the kindness of blood donors to help them save lives. Only about 37% of the population is able to donate blood, but less than 10% actually do. Until a safe blood substitute is found,  donors and blood centers are crucial to maintaining a safe blood supply.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and do our part! Your blood donation could save a life.