“Great impact on the field:” MSOE students research possible solution to blood shortages

MILWAUKEE -- Inevitably, there will be a certain time of the year when blood supplies are down -- sometimes critically. What if we could supplement the supply with artificial red blood cells? A Milwaukee school is applying for a patent in its research to do just that.

"Basically what we're doing is making these tiny, little artificial red blood cells that people can then use when you don't have that blood supply that you would need," said Haley Steiner, MSOE student.

Students of MSOE's BioMolecular Engineering Program have developed artificial red blood cells and have applied for a patent. The project came about by a surprise discovery.

"The team that was working on the project in 2013, accidentally discovered the artificial red blood cell shape while they were working on the development of an anti-cancer drug delivery system," said Steiner.

They are currently testing the cells' ability to carry oxygen, and stay stable long-term.

"That way they can be transported or used in the long-term and kind of stock up blood donations rather than having to produce them on the scene," said Sydney Stephens, project manager.

More research and development and clinical trials need to happen before the artificial blood cells hit the market.

"The potential for being able to use a blood product like this really has great impact on the field," said Dr. Waseem Anani, Blood Center of Wisconsin medical director.

Dr. Anani says the need for human donors won't go away.

"So it's important that people keep donating, but for the right patient at the right time, blood substitutes can be a great product," said Dr. Anani.

Synthetic red blood cells and other blood substitutes being researched could eventually help groups unable to get the normal method of blood transfusions. That includes Jehovah's Witnesses and isolated military personnel.