More troops than ever are surviving their battlefield injuries, often overloading the military’s health care system. Massive blood shortages continue to plague military trauma care, and the problem is complicated by the remote, inaccessible locations of today’s war zones.
In 2008, Darpa, the Pentagon’s blue-sky research arm, launched the Blood Pharming program, with the goal of manufacturing mega doses of universal-donor red blood units (O-negative) using a compact, self-contained system. “Pharming” is the process of genetically engineering animals or plants to generate mass quantities of medically useful substances, like hormones or antibodies. In this case, Darpa wants a synthetic platform that’s engineered to cultivate blood cells.
Now Arteriocyte, the biotech firm that got $1.95 million for the project, has sent off an initial shipment of their pharmed blood product to the Food and Drug Administration. It hopes to pass muster with agency’s safety regulators.
The blood was produced using hematopoietic cells, derived from embryonic cord-blood units. Currently, it takes Arteriocyte scientists three days to turn a single umbilical cord unit into 20 units of RBC-packed blood. The average soldier needs six units during trauma treatment.
“We’re basically mimicking bone marrow in a lab environment,” company CEO Don Brown tells Danger Room. “Our model works, but we need to extrapolate our production abilities to make scale.”
And while Darpa’s largely after an endless stream of war-zone blood, Brown, whose company uses technology created at Johns Hopkins, thinks pharmed blood would have several advantages over relying on the real stuff.
Because most blood used in military operations is donated on U.S ground, it’s usually three weeks old by the time it hits the front lines. The shelf-life of donated blood is still disputed. The Red Cross tosses RBC units after 42 days, but some medical experts think that fresh blood “expires” after 28 days, and cite increased risk of infection and organ failure once blood is older than two weeks.
“Until now, the military’s strategy has mainly been contained to basically using stale blood,” Brown said. “And they’ll set up mobile blood banks in a war zone, but even every troop rolling up their sleeve might not be enough when you’ve got a crisis with dozens or more injuries.”
And because the method can get so much blood from a single cord unit, it’d also minimize risks associated with multiple-donation transfusions, which are common when a patient needs several units.
But while Arteriocyte think they’ve mastered the formula for pharmed blood, the company’s got a ways to go to make it financially viable. A single unit of pharmed blood currently runs them $5,000.
Still, given the price tag of transporting and storing donated blood, Darpa’s betting that a unit of pharmed blood will make financial sense once it costs less than $1,000.
Human trials aren’t likely until 2013, but the Pentagon could invoke “emergency protocol” to snag the blood sooner — Brown predicts military use within five years.