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13 January 2010

Search for artificial blood substitute

Colchester Campus

Professor Chris Cooper

Essex, vampires and the search for an artificial blood substitute

If the current wave of vampire stories is to be believed, humans can peacefully co-exist with vampires.

The Twilight book trilogy has ‘vegetarian’ vampires living on animal blood and in the TV series True Blood, Japanese scientists have developed a synthetic blood substitute. However, in the most recent blockbuster movie Daybreakers, vampires suffer a horrific fate when attempting to drink their blood substitute.

Back in the real world, the hunt for a blood substitute could not be truer. In fact, the quest to create artificial blood is big business, with more than one billion pounds being spent over the last 20 years in an attempt to create a true alternative to blood.

Among those around the globe seeking a viable blood alternative are scientists at the University of Essex who have just submitted a worldwide patent for their engineered haemoglobin.

Over 75 million units of donated blood are given to people worldwide for use in hospitals. However, there are growing concerns about its use in routine operations.

A true blood substitute would be very useful as it could have a long shelf life, be stored away from hospitals, need not be matched for blood group and be guaranteed free of contamination by any present or future viruses.

The starting materials for blood substitutes have included chemicals used to help make atom bombs, cow blood and blood grown in bacteria. However, to date the world’s scientists have failed to produce a safe alternative to blood. The real world is more Daybreakers than True Blood.

The reason for this failure, according to Professor Chris Cooper, a biochemist and blood substitute expert at the University of Essex, lies in haemoglobin, the red molecule inside blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. Outside the protective environment of the red cell, haemoglobin can be toxic.

Haemoglobin normally changes colour from red to claret as it transfers oxygen around the body. However, when it is damaged the iron in haemoglobin is oxidised (like a car rusting) to produce dysfunctional brown and green products.

‘Basically, haemoglobin produces free radicals that can damage the heart and kidneys,’ explained Professor Cooper. ‘The trick with artificial blood is to modify the molecule to be less toxic, but still perform the vital role of carrying oxygen around the body. No one has managed this yet.’

What makes Professor Cooper’s group engineered haemoglobin so special is that it is less toxic.

Daybreakers envisages a race against time to produce an artificial blood substitute to save vampires and the human race from extinction. In the world of science, the consequences are not so dramatic, but the race is well and truly on.

Ends

Note to Editors:

Professor Cooper’s work on blood substitutes is funded by UK government research councils in Biotechnology and Biological Sciences (BBSRC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPSRC).

A photograph is available on request of Professor Chris Cooper showing the changes in blood colour. For more details or to arrange an interview with Professor Cooper please call the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400 or e-mail comms@essex.ac.uk

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