In a synthetic biology project dubbed HaemO2, researchers based at the University of Essex are developing a universal artificial blood substitute that, if successful, could potentially be given to any patient in need, regardless of blood type.
Blood substitutes are desirable since the number of donors worldwide is steadily decreasing, meaning that hospitals are often in short supply of good quality blood for use during surgery or after trauma. In particular, individuals with rarer blood types often struggle to find donors, a problem which would be solved with a one-size-fits-all blood. Furthermore, blood substitutes negate the need for screening for viral infections and therefore represent a clean, readily available supply of blood that would be especially useful after natural disasters.
HaemO2, which is led by Professor Chris Cooper, aims to produce a safe and effective blood alternative using a hemoglobin-based oxygen carrier (HBOC). Hemoglobin is the iron-containing protein found in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Although scientists have attempted to design a HBOC for this purpose before, previous efforts have fallen down because of the highly reactive nature of heme iron when outside red blood cells.
HaemO2 are attempting to solve this problem by engineering hemoglobin variants that can detoxify the iron and the damaging free radicals produced in extracellular hemoglobin. If the team is successful, the resulting blood substitute could be stored at room temperature and have a shelf life of up to two years, making it tremendously useful.
“It means we could overcome some of the inherent problems with transfusions as there would be no need for blood group typing and a longer shelf life means you are able to stockpile the supplies necessary for major disasters,” explained Professor Cooper in a news-release. “It also offers the opportunity for routine transfusion support in ambulances or at remote inaccessible locations.”
HaemO2 has just been awarded a whopping £1.5 million ($2.5 million) of funding which the team hopes will push the product one step further towards commercialization. Although some blood substitutes are available in other countries, such as Russia, they are not licensed in the UK or the US.