Bringing Stem Cells to War: Meet the Blood Pharmers
New research from DARPA could open the door to on-demand blood-cell manufacturing on battlefields and in hospitals. All medics need is a machine that uses a nanofiber that mimics bone marrow to turn a handful of stem cells into gallons of blood. Who needs blood donations when you have blood pharming?
Published on: December 16, 2008
Fresher blood is better than stale: It carries more oxygen and, when transfused into patients, speeds recovery. Military medics are all too familiar with this problem in the field, where donated blood may take two or more weeks to reach soldiers who need it immediately. But medical researchers—also known as blood pharmers—are working on manufacturing the red stuff on the spot.
With a machine the size of a few refrigerators, the Defense Department’s advanced research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) envisions liter upon liter of fresh blood churning out, destined for the veins of injured soldiers. It doesn’t get any fresher than that. And if it works for the military, it should also work for domestic hospitals that are paying increasingly pricey bills for blood that’s in short supply, says DARPA project scientist Jon Mogford, who was awarded nearly $2 million to Cleveland-based Arteriocyte for blood-pharming research.
The company’s key ingredient is umbilical-cord stem cells, the Houdini of human cells, that can transform into whatever other cells the body might need to repair or replace injured ones. Arteriocyte researchers were trying to grow big batches of stem cells when they realized that the growing conditions they used—such as temperature and levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide —caused the stem cells to turn into an early stage of red blood cell. At first they were frustrated because they wanted stem cells. Then they realized that they may have unintentionally found a clever way to produce new blood.
Blood is in extremely short supply, and not only on the battlefield. Americans today do not donate blood as often as they used to and many are ineligible to donate because of the risk of hepatitis and other diseases tied to ubiquitous tattoos and piercings. The shortage has driven the cost of blood up and hospitals are having a hard time getting the kind that they need when they need it. Even when they do, it may be several days old. On battlefields, the blood may be even older: “It often takes seven to 14 days to get from my arm to a staging center,” said Arteriocyte CEO Donald Brown.
The trick isn’t producing red blood cells—the company has that figured out—it is producing them in enough volume to do patients some good. The cells can be finicky: they need just the right environment to grow. For that, Arteriocyte is relying on a technique developed at Johns Hopkins University that uses nanofibers to mimic the three-dimensional structure of bone marrow, which manufactures blood in the body. Parent stem cells readily multiply in the matrix. “You’re trying to replicate what goes on in human bone marrow,” Brown says.
The DARPA award gives Arteriocyte three years to scale up to a self-contained system that could turn out 100 units of universal blood (which could be transfused into people with any blood type) a week for eight weeks. The system can measure no more than 47 cu ft and must stand up to the rigors of frontline military deployment. DARPA then wants to submit the system to the FDA for approval. In the end, if the system works, soldiers and civilian patients could have all the blood they need available on tap.