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CWRU researchers to help develop potentially life-saving synthetic blood substitute

Donated blood fills into a collection bag aboard a OneBlood blood donation bus, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Miami. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of blood donation sites have been closed and the need for blood is now critical. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee
The hope is that the synthetic blood could reduce the reliance on donated blood products which are often in short supply and can have limited shelf lives, according to the project's lead researcher.

Imagine a world where people don’t bleed to death for lack of blood available for transfusions after car accidents or on the battlefield.

Case Western Reserve University is currently participating in a U.S. Department of Defense-funded $46.4 million project to create a freeze-dried blood substitute, that researchers say would potentially save thousands of lives.

The project aims to solve a big problem facing doctors, nurses and their patients — lifesaving blood can be inaccessible or unavailable, said lead researcher Anirban Sen Gupta.

The synthetic blood would be able to carry oxygen all over the body and clot just like the real thing, he said.

Our goal is to get it to work like blood as close as possible," Sen Gupta said. "If I want to put a number on it, it would be 90% or more as close to real blood.

The freeze-dried substance could be kept on hand and transfused into a patient as needed, said Sen Gupta.

“All we would need is to reconstitute it in sterile saline to create a liquid,” he said. “It doesn't require bringing the patient to a big trauma center or a blood bank. The accessibility, availability and usage expand beyond what is available with natural blood products right now.”

Many types of blood products are only useable for a short amount of time and are typically stored in hospitals, which can be far from trauma scenes, Sen Gupta explained.

Platelets have a shelf life of only about five days, he said. Red blood cells can only be stored for about a month, and plasma lasts only a short time longer than that.

"The combination of the challenges of donor availability and the shelf life and then portability, taking blood outside the hospitals is not a common thing," Sen Gupta said. "Giving it to somebody who needs it at the point of the accident or at the point of the battlefield injury is also a huge challenge."

The military is funding the project, which includes about a dozen universities and labs across the country including CWRU, because synthetic blood products could potentially save the lives of thousands of soldiers wounded on the battlefield, far from medical resources and help solve a global shortage of blood products for transfusions, Sen Gupta said.

Unfortunately, natural disasters, mass shootings or terrorist bombings where the natural blood product resources become overwhelmed because there are so many people that need to be treated, that's another scenario where if you had something on the shelf stockpiled that could be used on demand should such a situation happen," he said.

Sen Gupta said his lab has been doing this research for 17 years now. With the new collaboration, he said there could be synthetic blood on the market within a decade.

Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.