Science, in all its grand ambition and contemporary sophistication, doesn’t quite have what it takes yet to replicate anything like blood. It not only delivers oxygen and essential nutrients, but also serves a host of other functions crucial for our survival, such as fighting infections, healing injuries and regulating hormones. So far, researchers have concentrated the bulk of their efforts on the more modest goal of creating something that can at least effectively carry out the vital role of transporting oxygen throughout the body.
This kind of “artificial blood” would be a useful substitute for critical circumstances such as medical emergencies, when the body can’t do this on its own. It could also be designed to be sterile, unlike real blood, which can be infected and infect others during a transfusion. And while donated blood requires refrigeration, a synthetic version could be made to last longer and be readily available for various life-or-death situations, even on the battlefield.
The latest bearer of hope for such a potential breakthrough comes from a research facility located in the Transylvanian city of Cluj-Napoca, of all places. (Yes, Translyvania is a real place in Romania.) Researcher Radu Silaghi-Dumitrescu, a professor at Babes-Bolyai University, has been working on a unique concoction and his work has progressed to the point where he and his team successfully transfused a blood substitute into mice—without them experiencing any ill effects, according to a report by the Romanian news outlet Descopera. He intends for the lab-engineered blood to work inside the body for several hours or even up to an entire day as the body replenishes itself.
The creation of true artificial blood has become a medical “holy grail” of sorts. So much so in fact that some of the brightest minds in medical science, hailing from ambitious startups to multi-billion dollar health care companies, have exposed an unknowing public to risky experiments that have thus far only yielded disheartening, and at times, disastrous consequences. Industry giant Baxter Healthcare Corporation was the first to attempt clinical trials on human test subjects in the 1990s with a substitute called HemAssist; the study was quickly canceled as it became apparent that patients receiving the manufactured substance died at a noticeably higher rate than those those who got donated blood. And in the mid-2000s, a now-defunct company named Northfield Laboratories was engulfed in controversy when researchers carried out emergency transfusions using a similar substance called PolyHeme on unconscious trauma patients without their consent. At the time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave regulatory approval to perform the research as a “no-consent study.”
The principal challenge in safely mimicking the oxygen-carrying properties of human blood is that hemoglobin, the molecule responsible for transporting oxygen, is prone to breaking down easily and quickly without the blood cell’s membrane to protect it from outside stresses. While modified versions of other sources such as a cow’s blood are more sturdy, they also have a tendency to attach to nitric oxide, which can lead to high blood pressure. For now, the FDA does not approve the sale or use of hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers (HBOCs) due to well-established findings that show these variations have dangerous side effects, such as high blood pressure, and can also “escape the blood vessels and damage the kidneys and other organs,” according to a statement from the government agency.
Silaghi-Dumitrescu’s product, however, isn’t hemoglobin-based but instead uses hemerythrin, a protein equivalent found in invertebrates, such as sea worms, that isn’t nearly as vulnerable to the rigors of outside stressful environments. The substitute is a mix of hemerythrin, salt and albumin—a plasma cocktail that he believes can be refined and mixed with water to someday make “instant blood.”
Although there’s the obvious irony that the research is being done in Romania, where the legend of Dracula originated, Silaghi-Dumitrescu’s work looks to be legitimate and reputable considering that a peer-reviewed paper trail has shown that he’s been developing the artificial blood for some time. He plans to continue with animal studies for a couple more years in preparation for human trials.
“Tests on humans are an extra gentle subject,” Silaghi-Dumitrescu told Medical Daily. “Authorization…represents a huge risk.”