Artificial Blood Could Be Breakthrough in Healthcare | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 27.10.2003
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Artificial Blood Could Be Breakthrough in Healthcare

Doctors in Sweden have tested artificial blood on eight surgery patients so far without side effects. The powdered blood could revolutionize healthcare.


Emergency rooms could find great relief in artificial blood

Doctors worldwide are regularly frustrated by the scarcity of blood donations. Blood is vital for saving lives. Yet too few people donate it, and what the bloodbanks do receive can only be kept for 42 days outside the human body before going bad.

But times may be changing now that doctors in Sweden have successfully used artificial blood to treat patients.

"The artificial blood means a dramatic change and improvement in healthcare," said Professor Bengt Fagrell at the Department of Medicine at Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm.

The blood is made from real blood whose shelf-life has expired. Scientists separate the oxygen-transporting substance hemoglobin from red blood cells and bind it with a synthetic substance called polyetylenglycol (PEG). The artificial blood, which is in powder form, can be kept for years. It can be mixed with any liquid that doesn't irritate the body.

Notaufnahme im Krankenhaus

Often blood reserves can't be used because the right blood type isn't available or the blood has been tainted by infections or impurities. But those problems are moot with the artificial blood. Not only can it be used without even testing the patient's blood type, but it is also unlikely to carry viruses.

"You only need to think of Africa and the enormous HIV problem. Nearly every blood transfusion there risks transmitting the virus," Fagrell -- whose department is conducting the tests -- pointed out. "The artificial blood is made up of only two molecules and virtually cannot transport the virus."

No adverse effects

In phase one of the tests, the doctors in Stockholm used the blood on people for the first time, on healthy volunteers. Now, in phase two, they have been testing the blood on patients undergoing hip surgery, in which, Dr. Pierre Lafolie, the head of clinical research at Karolinska Hospital, said they normally lose lots of blood.

"We have not seen any adverse effects," Lafolie told Deutsche Welle.

It's not the first time that scientists have developed artificial blood. "There had been efforts earlier, Lafolie said. "But all earlier efforts had had adverse effects, clotting, bleeding, etc."

Human blood isn't even necessary to make the powder. Any mammal's blood will do, Lafolie explained, "because you don't use the whole blood. You take out the hemoglobin which is then covered in PEG."

One disadvantage of the blood has become apparent: the body breaks down the substance quickly. It's also not yet clear whether large doses of PEG cause side-effects.

Two or three years more of research are still needed before the artificial blood can begin to fill the immense market demand. And it will take even longer for it to be approved by national drug agencies.

Scientists at Sanglart, a San Diego biopharmaceutical company, developed the artificial blood, called Hemospan (MP4). The tests were done in Stockholm due to personal contacts and Karolinska's experience in developing drugs, Lafolie said.

Still, even if Hemospan is approved for use, it may not be able to replace real blood in all circumstances. Blood donors will still be needed.