First-generation artificial blood is about to hit the market
Last year, the tally of blood transfusions climbed to a record high. More people are donating blood than ever before, but a rapidly aging society is using it up even faster as the number of elective surgeries and medical treatments requiring blood transfusions continues to rise.
This year, things are starting out even worse. "We have in fact seen the worst ... in memory, in terms of blood availability," says Harvey G. Klein, president of the American Association of Blood Banks in Bethesda, Md.
In 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put a ban on blood donations from people who lived in the United Kingdom for more than 6 months between 1980 and 1996. Of concern was the spread of the human version of mad cow disease, Cruetzfeld-Jakob disease, that had hit the United Kingdom. More recently, an FDA advisory committee recommended adding people from France, Ireland, and Portugal to the ban. The spread of AIDS and other bloodborne diseases such as hepatitis has also diminished the blood supply by excluding potential donors.
If only there were substitutes that could fill some of blood's roles in the body, artificial substances that would be free of the supply constraints and contamination vulnerabilities of the real stuff. Besides the roles these substitutes could play in general surgery, such products could save lives during emergencies and major disasters in which blood isn't readily available. It could also be a medical boon to developing countries that don't bank blood.
For decades, researchers have sought to develop a partial replacement for blood. Now, several companies are about to release the first line of artificial blood products. "I've watched this field over the last 20 years, and this is the most promising that it's been," says George Nemo, head of the transfusion-medicine program at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Md.
Half the …