The Future of Blood

Lauren Vogelbaum


In the future, blood may be manufactured in labs -- and designed to be more shelf-stable than Velveeta. Forget Tru:Blood. This stuff could be given to all patients, regardless of blood type, and stored for years without refrigeration in case of emergency.

The initial steps toward this incredible future were taken (and pretty seriously borked) in the 1600s, when medical practitioners began attempting transfusions of animal blood, oils, milk, beer, urine and other liquids that distinctly do not belong in the human bloodstream. Though interest in a substitute for blood persisted through the age of cholera and the World Wars, research into blood-borne viruses like hepatitis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) during the 1980s spurred development of the first truly promising artificial bloods. Early trials were abandoned as their risks proved too high, but eventually two classes of potentially viable substitutes were created: hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers (HBOCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs).

Neither are true replacements for blood -- they're more like stopgaps to help normalize blood pressure and keep oxygen circulating through a person's body until he or she can either produce more blood naturally or receive a transfusion from a donor. PFCs are synthetic compounds with a huge propensity for carrying gasses that've been dissolved in a liquid. HBOCs are made from sterilized hemoglobin -- that's the compound in your blood cells that bonds to oxygen from your lungs and disperses it through your body.

But they're not perfect, even for stopgaps. PFCs have never made it big -- a lot of it is required to be effective, and they can cause adverse side effects, especially in the vascular systems of the brain and lungs. And HBOCs have never even made it out of the human trial phase -- they can cause blood pressure spikes, and the free-ranging hemoglobin they contain breaks down into toxic compounds in the body.

Researchers out of the University of Essex are chipping away at that last problem. They're engineering hemoglobin molecules combined with the amino acid tyrosine, which they say can enable a patient's body to break down the hemoglobin more safely.

Other researchers are developing lab-grown red blood cells, created by using pluripotent stem cells to grow the mesoderm layers from which blood cells (among many other things) derive. Blood made from these cultured cells wouldn't be shelf-stable, but it would eliminate the risk of disease and immune reactions that come with human donations, plus the fuss of sorting out blood types (as it could all be created in O-, the universal donor) -- and would provide young, strong cells with the potential to survive longer. The main challenge to the research seems to be economic viability -- a single drop of blood may contain some half a billion red blood cells, which means making quantities of the stuff would require massive manufacturing capacity. But the team working on it hopes to begin clinical trials in 2016.

If any of these blood substitutes -- or perhaps a combination of their technologies -- pan out, it could mean global access to clean, life-saving transfusion material. Considering that some 90 million transfusions occur worldwide every year, it could also be a huge business -- estimates indicate that it would drive annual sales of over $7 billion in the U.S. alone.

As a bit of an aside: Despite all this amazing research and possibility, my personal favorite type of artificial blood is still the stuff used on movie sets. Over on BrainStuff, I got to play with some. For science.

We used Ben Nye's Mass Casualty Blood Powder, which comes in powder form and mixes with water to form a non-viscous fake blood. (Adulteration with corn starch and/or corn syrup as thickening agents optional.) I liked working with it very much -- it didn't sting my eyes or nose, had a neutral/salty taste, washed off skin with lye-process soap within a day, didn't affect my hair dye, and dried to a realistic rust color. Though I've also had great results with homemade fake bloods -- my favorite recipe involving water, corn syrup, corn starch, red food dye and instant coffee crystals mixed to the desired color and consistency.

Have you worked with fake blood -- or, for those of you in the medical science and research industries, artificial blood? Do you think the development of true artificial blood is likely in our lifetimes? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below (or via the Fw:Thinking Facebook page).