Injuries and Illness

Untrue Blood: Scientists Look for Blood Substitute

Imagine that a worker is badly injured on the job and is bleeding heavily. When taken to the hospital, the employee is pumped full of blood. Only it isn’t real blood; it’s an artificial substitute.

Currently, this scenario is more science fiction than science. But the possibility of someday being able to manufacture artificial blood is no pipe dream. Researchers are hard at work on such an amazing product. Unfortunately, to date, progress has been limited.

Producing a safe blood substitute to replace transfusions is fraught with problems, according to a report titled Blood Substitutes: Hemoglobin-Based Oxygen Carriers, written by Dr. Jerrold H. Levy of the Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Healthcare and released by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) concurs, saying that while sophisticated high-tech systems have been developed to produce artificial blood in large quantities, unexpected toxicities have been observed in clinical trials with the substitutes, called hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers (HBOCs). NIH emphasizes that there’s a need for more basic research to address fundamental questions concerning HBOCs, including interactions with the immune system and an increased risk of heart attack.

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Benefits of Substitutes Touted

Despite developmental setbacks, efforts to produce a safe blood substitute continue because the benefits would be enormous. These include, for example:

•   Longer shelf life
•   Easier storage and transport
•   Fast and flexible stabilization of trauma patients
•   Less risk of transmission of bloodborne diseases
•   Fewer allergic reactions
•   Reduced need for compatibility testing
•   More widespread availability and more consistent supply

“Developing a safe blood substitute has been a goal of medical researchers for decades,” states ACSH.

Research was prompted largely by the wars that plagued the twentieth century and the desperate need for blood to treat battlefield injuries.

However, surgical procedures and civilian traumas such as motor vehicle accidents also “cry out for safe blood substitutes,” says ACSH, “as does research on bloodborne pathogens such as HIV.”

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An Idea Whose Time Has Come

The idea of creating some kind of blood substitute has a long, if sometimes dubious, history. According to, Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, recommended wine and opium as a blood substitute back in the seventeenth century. Needless to say, Wren was a better architect than medical researcher.

But despite many peculiar notions and failed experiments, the search for a way to replace human blood went on until finally, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the technology for blood transfusions was developed.

Blood transfusions have provided a major boon to treating injuries and illnesses involving severe blood loss or serious blood diseases. But all of the benefits of artificial blood we mentioned earlier highlight the numerous drawbacks of real-blood transfusions.

So it is with great hope and interest that researchers in our time have turned to the idea of producing a safe and effective blood substitute.

Although to date there are no human blood substitutes approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or its European counterparts, one product has been approved for veterinary use. And according to, within the past 6 years, red blood cell substitutes have been successfully used on an experimental basis without serious adverse effects on a patient in a hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, as well as patients in two trauma centers in San Diego, California.

Blood Substitutes and BBPs

Because blood substitutes are still far off on the horizon, it’s crucial to protect the blood you now have flowing through your veins. Aside from trauma, one of the greatest risks involving blood is bloodborne pathogens (BBPs), such as HIV. To counter that risk, all health authorities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on down recommend following universal precautions.

Do your employees understand the concept and the practice of universal precautions? Do they even know what they are? They should. Tomorrow, we’ll tell you what to tell them about BBPs and universal precautions.


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