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What Is Artificial Blood And How Does It Work?

Have you ever wondered what the world will look like in 50 years? What do you see? Maybe you are conceiving the next smartphone or a flying car. But, what about artificial blood?

Several scientists are working ‌hard to create artificial blood. This is because many hospitals across the world do not have enough blood for patients during surgeries.

Did you know there are different ‌surgeries? Not all of them require blood transfusion. Blood transfusion happens when doctors give you donated blood through a narrow tube in your vein.

It is a life-saving process, especially when you have lost a lot of blood or for long surgeries. Blood transfusion can also help if your body does not produce enough blood because of an illness.

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Finger prick for blood testing , Credit: Alden Chadwick

When your parents donate their blood, hospitals can store their blood only for 45 days. However, artificial blood could be stored much longer, approximately up to two years!

Before we look at artificial blood, what do you think blood is?

What is blood?

Your blood is actually a liquid that contains a mixture of cells. Here are two types of blood cells: red blood cells and white blood cells.

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Structure of isolated human red blood cells, Credit: Jessica Polka

Red blood cells have a specific protein in them called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is red, which gives your blood the color red. This protein is very important, as it carries oxygen throughout your body.

Oxygen is an important gas in the air that is used in your body to give you energy. Oxygen is converted to carbon dioxide in that process. When you breathe in, you take in oxygen, and when you breathe out, carbon dioxide comes out.

So, without hemoglobin, you don’t get oxygen. And without oxygen, you don’t have energy, which could lead to dying. Therefore, red blood cells are very important.

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Red blood cell (left) and White blood cell (right) viewed in a microscope, Credit: Electron Microscopy Facility at NCI-Frederick

In contrast, white blood cells are the guardians of your body. They are the ones that fight viruses and bacteria.

Viruses and bacteria are everywhere; in your food, your drinks, even in the air you breathe in. But don’t worry, there are good as well as bad bacteria and viruses. Your white blood cells will fight the bad ones that enter your body. They are constantly fighting, even when you don’t feel sick.

When you have a fever or a cold, this is when your white blood cells are struggling. This is why your mom will give you medication, as it helps your white blood cells kill the bad guys. Yes, take your meds, even if it tastes bad sometimes.

Now that you know about your natural blood, how does artificial blood differ from it?

What Is Artificial Blood?

Artificial blood acts similarly to your red blood cells. It will carry oxygen throughout the body to provide energy.

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Blood in two test tubes in a laboratory, Credit: Karen Slattery

Because artificial blood is made in laboratories, we don’t know how it will perform in a human body. There are several problems that scientists need to work on before we can use artificial blood.

One of the main questions is how artificial blood will carry oxygen. When you breathe in, you bring oxygen into your lungs. Your lungs are surrounded by small blood vessels called capillaries. Oxygen moves from your lungs into the capillaries. Hemoglobin then takes the oxygen and carries it to all parts of your body.

Artificial blood will have the same function as hemoglobin. However, because it is made of different materials, it takes oxygen in a different way.

There are two types of artificial blood. They are called “perfluorocarbons” (PFCs) and “hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers” (HBOCs). Their names describe the materials used to make them.

PFCs are made of molecules called fluorine and carbon. Scientists chose these molecules because we find them everywhere in nature. Fluorine and carbon can also bind with oxygen easily to carry it throughout the body.

Scientists found in one study that PFCs can take 50 times more oxygen than natural blood. This is because PFCs form strong bonds with oxygen faster than hemoglobin. However, we have one problem with PFCs. They do not mix well with natural blood, so scientists are testing new ways to solve this issue.

HBOCs are another type of artificial blood. To make them, we take hemoglobin from old, donated blood or make new hemoglobin in laboratories. In this type of blood substitute, oxygen binds with hemoglobin like in natural blood.

We will see artificial blood in hospitals soon, but there are a lot of challenges to overcome first.

Where can we use artificial blood?

In theory, we could use artificial blood anywhere blood is needed. This could be in surgeries where the patient needs blood transfusion, or if they have a blood illness. When we use natural blood for blood transfusions, there are several factors that doctors need to check first.

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Doctors performing a surgery on a patient, Credit: CMSRC

The blood type should match the donor’s blood. There are four proteins that can be found on your red blood cells. Everyone has one of the four proteins, making up your blood type. The four types are type A, type AB, type B and type O.

Even then, there is a small chance of the patient’s body rejecting it. There is also a risk of infection when we use other people’s blood. This is why there are several screening tests before you can donate your blood. Doctors ensure that blood donated does not have Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), hepatitis, and other bacteria or viruses.

Also, the number of people needing surgeries has increased across all countries due to the modern lifestyle. This sometimes causes a buildup of cholesterol that blocks our blood vessels. This makes us at risk for several surgeries, such as heart surgeries. So, the blood that people donate is not enough for everyone. If we had artificial blood, there would not be a problem of scarcity.

Have you heard of leukemia? It is a type of cancer that affects  the bone marrow. Bone marrow is a tissue inside your bones. It produces all the blood cells in your body, including the red blood cells and the white blood cells. Therefore, bone marrow is very important for your body.

Unfortunately, there are people, even children like you, who suffer from leukemia. Their bone marrow cannot produce enough blood for their body because of the cancer. For them, artificial blood would be a lifesaver, because it would give them unlimited blood for their whole life! While they would need regular blood transfusions, they would have a better chance of living a longer life.

Artificial blood does not fall under the same category as natural blood, so they can get blood transfusions. In fact, there is an artificial blood called Hemopure that is used for these people in some countries like South Africa. However, Hemopure is not yet approved by the FDA and is unavailable in the United States.

Glossary

Bacteria: Small single-cell organisms that do not have a nucleus.

Virus: A small biological organism that invades host cells to replicate.

Pathogen: An organism that invades a body and causes diseases.

Red blood cells: Blood cells containing hemoglobin, the red protein, that carry oxygen throughout the body.

White blood cells: Blood cells that fight the various pathogens that invade a body.

Hemoglobin: Protein in red blood cells that has a heme group, giving it the color red.

Perfluorocarbons: Made of fluorine and carbons, these molecules are used to make artificial blood.

Hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers: Proteins and compounds made from hemoglobin that are used to make artificial blood.

Resources

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Author

  • Samuel Bonne is a Mauritian-born Canadian biochemistry researcher. He currently works as a bioconjugation researcher at the Nitz lab in the University of Toronto. Samuel loves writing for smore as it allows him to explain innovative science to a wider audience.

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