This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
In a small, windowless lab room, the temperature reads a chilly 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Loud machines hum away and a reddish liquid flows through clear tube-like columns that reach up toward the ceiling.
The reddish liquid is human blood.
“We start with hemoglobin,” explains Dr. Allan Doctor. “We get that from expired units of blood that the shelf life timed out and they can’t be given to people.”
Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues and organs.
Doctor, a professor of pediatrics and bioengineering, points to the clear columns attached to a machine.
“This allows us to separate just the hemoglobin from the broken cells. We purify it and collect it into basically a bottle like this,” he says, holding up a jar.
Down the hall in a medium refrigerator, other bottles and beakers of various sizes hold different amounts of liquid — some a dark, ruby red, others a lighter shade of strawberry.
The scientists and researchers at the Center for Blood Oxygen Transport and Hemostasis (CBOTH) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore are hoping to succeed where others have failed: creating an artificial blood substitute that can be freeze dried, stored at room temperature, and used in an instant out in the field when donated human blood is in short supply or altogether absent.
Project leaders said they hope artificial blood will reshape wound care and prevent uncontrolled bleeding, the most common cause of preventable deaths in trauma.
“What we need is something that’s shelf-stable,” said Doctor, director of CBOTH. “Something that is durable and can be used in an ambulance so that it won’t be ruined if you take it out of the refrigerator for a few hours.”
Every two seconds, a person in the United States needs donated blood and platelets, according to the American Red Cross. But only about 3% of Americans make donations in a given year.
Donated blood has to be kept cold. Once it’s taken out of the fridge, it has to be used within a few hours, or it will expire. And even in perfect conditions, donated human blood only lasts for about 42 days in a blood bank.
That’s why most ambulances or combat medics in the military don’t carry blood with them all the time. Bags of freeze-dried blood that could be used when mixed with some water would mean new, easier options, Doctor said.
“It’s estimated that there’d be thousands of lost soldiers from the Afghanistan conflict that would be alive now if we could have given them transfusions at the point of injury,” he said. “That means a medic, running around with a field unit, has the blood in their backpack and when someone gets wounded, they can crawl over to them and give it to them right away.”
Doctor and his team in Baltimore, which includes biotech startup company KaloCyte, is focused specifically on creating artificial red blood cells.