How Artificial Blood Works

By: Tracy V. Wilson  | 
Red blood cells, also called erythrocytes, are shaped like biconcave discs. Learn about artificial blood and more with modern medicine pictures.
Photo courtesy Garrigan.Net

Doctors and scientists have come up with lots of gadgets that can take over for parts of the body that break or wear out. A heart, for example, is basically a pump; an artificial heart is a mechanical pump that moves blood. Similarly, total knee replacements substitute metal and plastic for bones and cartilage. Prosthetic limbs have become increasingly complex, but they're still essentially mechanical devices that can do the work of arms or legs. All of these are fairly easy to comprehend -- swapping out an organ for a manmade replacement usually makes sense.

Artificial blood, on the other hand, can be mind boggling. One reason is that most people think of blood as more than just connective tissue that carries oxygen and nutrients. Instead, blood represents life. Many cultures and religions place special significance on it, and its importance has even affected the English language. You might refer to your cultural or ancestral traits as being in your blood. Your family members are your blood relatives. If you're outraged, your blood boils. If you're terrified, it runs cold.


Blood carries all these connotations for good reason -- it's absolutely essential to the survival of vertebrate life forms, including people. It carries oxygen from your lungs to all the cells in your body. It also picks up the carbon dioxide you don't need and returns it to your lungs so you can exhale it. Blood delivers nutrients from your digestive system and hormones from your endocrine system to the parts of your body that need them. It passes through the kidneys and liver, which remove or break down wastes and toxins. Immune cells in your blood help prevent and fight off illnesses and infections. Blood can also form clots, preventing fatal blood loss from minor cuts and scrapes.

Next, learn about the different blood components and why artificial blood might be necessary.


What is Blood?

A scanning electron microscope image from normal circulating human blood.
Photographers Bruce Wetzel/Harry Schaefer, courtesy National Cancer Institute

It can seem improbable, or even impossible, that an artificial substance could replace something that does all this work and is so central to human life. To understand the process, it helps to know a little about how real blood works. Blood has two main components -- plasma and formed elements. Nearly everything that blood carries, including nutrients, hormones and waste, is dissolved in the plasma, which is mostly water. Formed elements, which are cells and parts of cells, also float in the plasma. Formed elements include white blood cells (WBCs), which are part of the immune system, and platelets, which help form clots. Red blood cells (RBCs) are responsible for one of blood's most important tasks -- carrying oxygen and carbon dioxide.

RBCs are numerous; they make up more than 90 percent of the formed elements in the blood. Virtually everything about them helps them carry oxygen more efficiently. An RBC is shaped like a disc that's concave on both sides, so it has lots of surface area for oxygen absorption and release. Its membrane is very flexible and has no nucleus, so it can fit through tiny capillaries without rupturing.


A red blood cell's lack of nucleus also gives it more room for hemoglobin (Hb), a complex molecule that carries oxygen. It's made of a protein component called a globin and four pigments called hemes. The hemes use iron to bond to oxygen. Inside each RBC are about 280 million hemoglobin molecules.

If you lose a lot of blood, you lose a lot of your oxygen delivery system. The immune cells, nutrients and proteins that blood carries are important, too, but doctors are generally most concerned with whether your cells are getting enough oxygen.

In an emergency situation, doctors will often give patients volume expanders, like saline, to make up for lost blood volume. This helps restore normal blood pressure and lets the remaining red blood cells continue to carry oxygen. Sometimes, this is enough to keep the body going until it can produce new blood cells and other blood elements. If not, doctors can give patents blood transfusions to replace some of the lost blood. Blood transfusions are also fairly common during some surgical procedures.

This process works pretty well, but there are several challenges that can make it difficult or impossible to get patients the blood they need:

  • Human blood has to be kept cool, and it has a shelf life of 42 days. This makes it impractical for emergency crews to carry it in ambulances or for medical staff to carry it onto the battlefield. Volume expanders alone may not be enough to keep a badly bleeding patient alive until he reaches the hospital.
  • Doctors must make sure the blood is the right type -- A, B, AB or O -- before giving it to a patient. If a person receives the wrong type of blood, a deadly reaction can result.
  • The number of people who need blood is growing faster than the number of people who donate blood.
  • Viruses like HIV and hepatitis can contaminate the blood supply, although improved testing methods have made contamination less likely in most developed countries.

This is where artificial blood comes in. Artificial blood doesn't do all the work of real blood -- sometimes, it can't even replace lost blood volume. Instead, it carries oxygen in situations where a person's red blood cells can't do it on their own. For this reason, artificial blood is often called an oxygen therapeutic. Unlike real blood, artificial blood can be sterilized to kill bacteria and viruses. Doctors can also give it to patients regardless of blood type. Many current types have a shelf life of more than a year and don't need to be refrigerated, making them ideal for use in emergency and battlefield situations. So even though it doesn't actually replace human blood, artificial blood is still pretty amazing.

We'll look at where artificial blood comes from and how it works in a person's bloodstream next.


Artificial Blood Cells

Both HBOCs and PFCs are considerably smaller than red blood cells.

Until recently, most attempts to create artificial blood failed. In the 19th century, doctors unsuccessfully gave patients animal blood, milk, oils and other liquids intravenously. Even after the discovery of human blood types in 1901, doctors kept looking for blood substitutes. World Wars I and II and the discoveries of hepatitis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) also raised interest in its development.

Pharmaceutical companies developed a few varieties of artificial blood in the 1980s and 1990s, but many abandoned their research after heart attacks, strokes and deaths in human trials. Some early formulas also caused capillaries to collapse and blood pressure to skyrocket. However, additional research has led to several specific blood substitutes in two classes -- hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers (HBOCs) and perflourocarbons (PFCs). Some of these substitutes are nearing the end of their testing phase and may be available to hospitals soon. Others are already in use. For example, an HBOC called Hemopure is currently used in hospitals in South Africa, where the spread of HIV has threatened the blood supply. A PFC-based oxygen carrier called Oxygent is in the late stages of human trials in Europe and North America.


The two types have dramatically different chemical structures, but they both work primarily through passive diffusion. Passive diffusion takes advantage of gasses' tendency to move from areas of greater concentration to areas lesser concentration until it reaches a state of equilibrium. In the human body, oxygen moves from the lungs (high concentration) to the blood (low concentration). Then, once the blood reaches the capillaries, the oxygen moves from the blood (high concentration) to the tissues (low concentration).

See the next page to learn more about HBOC blood.


HBOC Blood

PolyHeme HBOC from Northfield Labs
Photo courtesy Northfield Laboratories

HBOC vaguely resemble blood. They are very dark red or burgundy and are made from real, sterilized hemoglobin, which can come from a variety of sources:

  • RBCs from real, expired human blood
  • RBCs from cow blood
  • Genetically modified bacteria that can produce hemoglobin
  • Human placentas

However, doctors can't just simply inject hemoglobin into the human bloodstream. When it's inside blood cells, hemoglobin does a great job of carrying and releasing oxygen. But without the cell's membrane to protect it, hemoglobin breaks down very quickly. Disintegrating hemoglobin can cause serious kidney damage. For this reason, most HBOCs use modified forms of hemoglobin that are sturdier than the naturally-occurring molecule. Some of the most common techniques are:


  • Cross-linking portions of the hemoglobin molecule with an oxygen-carrying hemoglobin derivative called diaspirin
  • Polymerizing hemoglobin by binding multiple molecules to one another
  • Conjugating hemoglobin by bonding it to a polymer

Scientists have also researched HBOCs wrap hemoglobin in a synthetic membrane made from lipids, cholesterol or fatty acids. One HBOC, called MP4, is made from hemoglobin coated in polyethylene glycol.

HBOCs work much like ordinary RBCs. The molecules of the HBOC float in the blood plasma, picking up oxygen from the lungs and dropping it off in the capillaries. The molecules are much smaller than RBCs, so they can fit into spaces that RBCs cannot, such as into extremely swollen tissue or abnormal blood vessels around cancerous tumors. Most HBOCs stay in a person's blood for about a day -- far less than the 100 days or so that ordinary RBCs circulate.

However, HBOCs also have a few side effects. The modified hemoglobin molecules can fit into very small spaces between cells and bond to nitric oxide, which is important to maintaining blood pressure. This can cause a patient's blood pressure to rise to dangerous levels. HBOCs can also cause abdominal discomfort and cramping that is most likely due to the release of free radicals, harmful molecules that can damage cells. Some HBOCs can cause a temporary, reddish discoloration of the eyes or flushed skin.

Next, learn about PFC blood and how it is different from HBOCs.


PFC Blood

PFC-based artificial blood made by Oxygent
Photo courtesy John B. Carnett /Popular Science

Unlike HBOCs, PFCs are usually white and are entirely synthetic. They're a lot like hydrocarbons -- chemicals made entirely of hydrogen and carbon -- but they contain fluorine instead of carbon.

PFCs are chemically inert, but they are extremely good at carrying dissolved gasses. They can carry between 20 and 30 percent more gas than water or blood plasma, and if more gas is present, they can carry more of it. For this reason, doctors primarily use PFCs in conjunction with supplemental oxygen. However, extra oxygen can cause the release of free radicals in a person's body. Researchers are studying whether PFCs can work without the additional oxygen.


PFCs are oily and slippery, so they have to be emulsified, or suspended in a liquid, to be used in the blood. Usually, PFCs are mixed with other substances frequently used in intravenous drugs, such as lecithin or albumin. These emulsifiers eventually break down as they circulate from the blood. The liver and kidneys remove them from the blood, and the lungs exhale the PFCs the way they would carbon dioxide. Sometimes people experience flu-like symptoms as their bodies digest and exhale the PFCs.

PFCs, like HBOCs, are extremely small and can fit into spaces that are inaccessible to RBCs. For this reason, some hospitals have studied whether PFCs can treat traumatic brain injury (TBI) by delivering oxygen through swollen brain tissue.

Pharmaceutical companies are testing PFCs and HBOCs for use in specific medical situations, but they have similar potential uses, including:

  • Restoring oxygen delivery after loss of blood from trauma, especially in emergency and battlefield situations
  • Preventing the need for blood transfusions during surgery
  • Maintaining oxygen flow to cancerous tissue, which may make chemotherapy more effective
  • Treating anemia, which causes a reduction in red blood cells
  • Allowing oxygen delivery to swollen tissues or areas of the body affected by sickle-cell anemia

Artificial blood is not without controversy. Next, we'll look at some of the issues surrounding its use as well as its future in medicine.


Artificial Blood Controversy

PolyHeme, from Northfield Laboratories, is another type of artificial blood.
Photo courtesy Northfield Laboratories

At first glance, artificial blood seems like a good thing. It has a longer shelf life than human blood. Since the manufacturing process can include sterilization, it doesn't carry the risk for disease transmission. Doctors can administer it to patients of any blood type. In addition, many people who cannot accept blood transfusions for religious reasons can accept artificial blood, particularly PFCs, which are not derived from blood.

However, artificial blood has been at the center of several controversies. Doctors abandoned the use of HemAssist, the first HBOC tested on humans in the United States, after patients who received the HBOC died more often than those who received donated blood. Sometimes, pharmaceutical companies have had trouble proving that their oxygen carriers are effective. Part of this is because artificial blood is different from real blood, so it can be difficult to develop accurate methods for comparison. In other cases, such as when artificial blood is used to deliver oxygen through swollen brain tissue, the results can be hard to quantify.


Another source of controversy has involved artificial blood studies. From 2004 to 2006, Northfield Laboratories began testing an HBOC called PolyHeme on trauma patients. The study took place at more than 20 hospitals around the United States. Since many trauma patients are unconscious and can't give consent for medical procedures, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the test as a no-consent study. In other words, doctors could give patients PolyHeme instead of real blood without asking first.

Northfield Laboratories held meetings to educate people in the communities where the study took place. The company also gave people the opportunity to wear a bracelet informing emergency personnel that they preferred not to participate. However, critics claimed that Northfield Laboratories had not done enough to educate the public and accused the company of violating medical ethics.

Blood substitutes may be used as performance-enhancing drugs, much like human blood can when used in blood doping. An October 2002 article in "Wired" reported that some bicyclists were using Oxyglobin, a veterinary HBOC, to increase the amount of oxygen in their blood.

In spite of the controversy, artificial blood may be in widespread use within the next several years. The next generations of blood substitutes will also probably become more sophisticated. In the future, HBOCs and PFCs may look a lot more like red blood cells, and they may carry some of the enzymes and antioxidants that real blood carries.

See the links on the next page for more information on blood, artificial blood and related topics.


Frequently Answered Questions

What is artificial blood?
Artificial blood is a blood substitute that is used to treat and/or prevent anemia.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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