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HomeBlogHow close are we to a breakthrough in developing artificial blood?

How close are we to a breakthrough in developing artificial blood?

By: Medix Team
How close are we to a breakthrough in developing artificial blood?

Blood transfusion can mean the difference between life and death, but it requires a match of blood type and depends on donors' goodwill. The development of artificial blood would be an ideal solution, even if it is still several years down the road.

Modern medicine offers solutions for many medical problems – pelvic and knee replacements, digital implants to overcome deafness, and even artificial hearts. However, modern science has yet to succeed in developing an artificial substitute for human blood – one that can demonstrate all its properties and fulfill all its functions. 


Our blood is composed of fluids and cells. The liquid part is called plasma and consists of water, salts and protein. The cells that make up the blood are red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. The blood plays several roles, including: transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the lungs and cells in the body, balancing the body's temperature; protecting the body by transferring white cells from the immune system to combat invasive organisms and infections, and creating clots that prevent blood loss during injury.


What is artificial blood?

Artificial blood is an ideal product of the future, once researchers will develop and finalise an artificial blood that can fully carry out each of these roles. To date, science cannot offer a substitute for blood that is complete in function, but rather only a partial substitute that performs only a small share of its roles.


The potential advantages of artificial blood are tremendous – blood organizations will no longer have to rely on altruistic donors in a world where the amount of blood donations is continuously declining; the inherent danger of potential contamination by disease will disappear, and lifesaving transfusions can be quickly delivered to victims of mass-casualty events, to chemotherapy patients who need blood donations to survive and to patients who live in rural areas away from hospitals.


How much progress been made so far?

The path to a perfect substitute is still long, but developments currently in initial stages of research may be significant milestones on the way to this target. These developments currently focus on only one of blood's roles: the transport of oxygen to various parts of the body - the most common use for blood transfusions. The hope is that this will markedly reduce the use of natural blood transfusions in trauma, surgery, and in cases where the patient needs blood transfusions to function and natural blood can then be used in cases where artificial blood does not apply.


One type of oxygen-carrying blood substitute under development is based on perfluorocarbons - a group of organic compounds made up of carbon and fluoride atoms. Carbon monoxide is an inert substance, i.e. one that does not produce a chemical reaction and therefore is not rejected by the body. To allow it to dissolve in the bloodstream, it is mixed during the production process with fat compounds called lipids.


The main challenge of this replacement is the lipid concentration required to perform effective treatment. Too-high a concentration can endanger the patient, but low levels of lipids make the blood substitute ineffective. Enhanced products are currently being examined but have not yet been approved for use.


Another type of oxygen-carrying blood substitute is a hemoglobin-based product. As one of the components of blood, Hemoglobin's main function is to transfer oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. The main advantage in artificial hemoglobin lies in the fact that it is free of the membranes that surround the blood cells, the membrane that usually consists (or lacks) the Rh proteins that differentiate among the blood types. Therefore, in its artificial form, it can be used for all blood types.


The main problem with artificial hemoglobin is that in its raw form, it tends to break down into toxic particles that remain within the body. The challenge in this type of substitute is to produce a durable solution to this phenomenon. Another issue that scientists face in terms of hemoglobin-based substitutes is their lifespan. They are currently able to stay in the bloodstream for merely 20 to 30 hours, while natural red blood cells can survive in our bodies for 35 to 42 days.


To address the issues with hemoglobin-based blood-replacement, scientists around the world are now working on the development and growth of red blood cells in the laboratory, and are exploring the possibility of improving and stabilising natural red blood cells beyond their normal shelf life to produce a safe enhanced replacement with longer shelf life.


Breakthrough: Maybe in another decade

As noted, current blood substitutes can successfully perform only one of blood's roles: the transport of oxygen. Their short shelf lives and side effects of their disintegration in the body are currently preventing them from being approved by the FDA and other regulatory bodies.


It will take even longer to develop a full blood substitute because scientists will have to find a solution for all of blood's other components and roles. Today, in parallel to efforts to improve existing substitutes focused on transporting oxygen until approved, there are also attempts to develop blood substitutes that cope with the need to fight infection and blood clotting.


In addition to the many medical challenges of blood substitutes, there are other issues that will need to be resolved. For example, though hemoglobin-based blood substitutes can already be stored for about a year – as opposed to real blood that breaks down after one month of storage – effective substitutes will need to be maintained for even longer periods of time to serve as emergency reservoirs for natural disasters or mass-casualty events, or as an alternative reservoir in countries without a central blood bank. In addition, future substitutes will have to offer production costs that are much lower than current costs to provide a plausible alternative to blood units produced from donations.


So when will we be able to announce an effective, problem-free artificial blood solution used by the medical systems worldwide? Time will tell but experts speculate these problems could be resolved within a decade, producing durable products that will answer for most of the blood's roles and can exist in our body for long periods of time

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