Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=155342
Story Retrieval Date: 4/23/2014 2:34:45 PM CST

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Image courtesy of Erin Lavik/CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY

Synthetic blood platelets, in upper left, form a clot. The artificial platelets, developed at Case Western Reserve University, don't form undesired clots because they are coated with water. This prevents them from sticking together in the bloodstream.


Artificial blood looms on the horizon

by Todd Loesch
Feb 02, 2010


Two cars lie twisted and mangled after a vicious car accident on a remote stretch of highway. The nearest hospital is 30 minutes away, and as the victims slip into shock, every second counts. Luckily, the EMTs administer synthetic blood, which quickly stops the bleeding and saves their lives. 

Sound futuristic? It may not be that far-fetched. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have created synthetic blood platelets that can drastically reduce bleeding time in traumatic injuries. 

Erin Lavik, a biomedical engineer, and her former doctoral student, James P. Bertram, hope their powdery creation – which cuts bleeding time by nearly 25 percent – could one day help save lives on the battlefield and in the trauma ward. Their work was recently published in “Science Translational Medicine.” 

“One of the things you see in all these traumas is bleeding,” Lavik said. “And one of the things you ask is how to stop that bleeding.” 

Rather than trying to develop an entire system of artificial blood, Lavik and Bertram focused on blood platelets, which are part of the clotting system. When blood vessels break, platelets stick together to essentially plug the leak. The synthetic platelets act like reinforcements.  

“It’s sort of like having extra participants in clot formation,” Lavik said. The platelets zero in on the target wound and present proteins for the body to use.  

Dr. Hieu H. Ton-That, a surgeon at Loyola Medical Center who routinely sees trauma victims, is excited about the potential that Lavik’s platelets offer.  

“There’s a real need for blood and blood product substitutes,” he said. Blood is regularly in short supply and only has a shelf life of 42 days. Ambulances and LIFESTAR helicopters typically do not carry blood, and when a transfusion is needed, a match must be found. And this process wastes valuable time, time that seriously injured patients sometimes do not have.  

This isn’t the first time researchers have tried to create artificial blood. Evanston-based Northfield Laboratories created Polyheme, a hemoglobin-based blood substitute. Polyheme was tested in clinical trials at hospitals across the country – including Loyola Medical Center – in 2004, before it was discontinued after safety concerns.

Northfield Labs has since shut down. Northfield CEO Dr. Steven A. Gould could not be reached. Ton-That was not at Loyola during the trials.  

But Polyheme’s failures highlight the difficulties of creating artificial blood. 

“The problem is, there’s nothing as good as what the body makes,” Ton-That said. Red blood cells are virtually unique in their ability to hold onto oxygen, carry it through the bloodstream, and release it when needed.  

“It’s a very complex job to be able to hang onto it and let it go at the right time,” he said. There are currently substances that hang onto oxygen very well but don’t readily give it up. Polyheme was designed to mimic hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that holds onto oxygen.  

Ton-That is especially excited for Lavik’s research, since it’s the first time anyone has tried to make a platelet substitute. Currently, if a patient has low blood platelet levels, the only remedy is a blood transfusion. 

Ton-That said that if the research pans out, it could have a huge impact on trauma wards and battlefields around the globe. He points to Dr. Ernest Moore’s list of traits that the perfect blood substitute would have: availability, compatibility, storability and safety. (Moore is a surgeon with the Denver Health Medical Center.) 

So far, the platelets seem to pass the test. Bertram and Lavik mainly used cheaper materials that have already been FDA approved. Because it’s in powder form, the platelets are easily stored and transported, and they have a longer shelf life. And Lavik said they have not seen undesired buildup or clotting, and the leftover platelets are biodegradable.  

She said much work still needs to be done, and any clinical use is still probably years away, but the numbers don’t lie.

“So far the data look great, and we’re crossing our fingers that it stays that way.”