An artificial blood substitute that can be stored at room temperature and used on anyone, no matter what their blood type, is currently in development at the UK’s University of Essex.
With this technology, the need for blood donations would be a thing of the past, putting an end to shortages that have plagued rarer blood types for years.
In recent years the number of donors has also decreased, and many hospitals are struggling to meet the needs of their patients with safe and reliable blood supplies.
The technology, which is being developed under the project name HaemO2, would have a shelf life of up to two years without the need for refrigeration, meaning it could be stockpiled for emergency situations.
“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 project leader Professor Chris Cooper.
“It also offers the opportunity for routine transfusion support in ambulances or at remote inaccessible locations.”
The goal of the project is to create a synthetic haemoglobin-based oxygen carrier (HBOC), one of the most commonly-researched approaches to artificial blood creation.
HBOCs used to be regarded as the holy grail of artificial blood in the industry, but a series of failures in clinical trials have resulted in declining optimism in their likely success. In particular, HBOCs have been linked to an increase in deaths and heart attacks.
The reason for this is that haemoglobin can be toxic when they are not safely enclosed in red blood cells, and overcoming this safely has proved to be a significant challenge.
However, the HaemO2 team may have the answer: the technology makes use of the body’s own natural defences to detoxify the haemoglobin, rendering it safe.
In order to take the technology from the lab to hospitals, the team has been awarded £1.5m ($2.5m) in research funding by the UK’s Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The quest for a suitable artificial replacement for blood has been underway for 25 years, with £2bn ($3.3bn) spent worldwide on research into the technology.
Many companies have given up on their search due to the complexities involved, with some even filing for bankruptcy.
While technologies have already been developed in this area, they have failed to meet the strict standards of the US and UK health regulators in order to be approved for sale.
The most common issue with previous technologies is increases in cardiovascular issues, with some even being withdrawn from trials due to higher-than-expected deaths.