A biomedical engineer at the University of Houston (UH) is working to develop highly innovative technology to make blood transfusions safer by separating well-preserved red blood cells from potentially harmful materials. His work is supported by a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
While blood transfusions save millions of lives every year, there’s strong evidence that transfusions of red blood cells stored in a refrigerator for prolonged periods of time can be dangerous or even deadly for some patients. The longer blood is in storage, the more potentially harmful materials, such as the anticoagulant-preservative solution that keeps blood cells alive during storage as well as cells themselves that have been irreparably damaged, build up.
“Therapeutically, there’s absolutely no reason to transfer any of this into the patient,” said Sergey Shevkoplyas, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering with UH’s Cullen College of Engineering. “The only thing you need to transfuse into the patient is well-preserved red blood cells. There’s no point to giving you these other potentially toxic materials.”
Shevkoplyas is working under an NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to develop a simple device to separate healthy, well-preserved red blood cells from all the other material in the blood bag just before transfusion.
The system Shevkoplyas is developing will consist of two tubes that feed into a plastic device just a few inches in size. One tube will send blood into the device, while another will send saline solution. In the first step, the saline will wash harmful particles and the storage solution off the healthy red blood cells.
Next, the entire mixture will be sent through an array of precisely designed micro fluidic channels, where the shape, size and flexibility of healthy red blood cells will allow them to be separated from the particles, damaged cells and storage solution. At that point, the healthy red blood cells, along with saline acting as a transport medium, can be transfused safely into the patient.
“We’re trying to fit as much of this technology as we can into the existing paradigm of transfusion. We want to empower medical professionals at the scene to make the decision about using this system,” Shevkoplyas said. “You cannot save people’s lives without blood transfusions. We’re just trying to make this life-saving procedure as safe as possible.”
— Lisa Merkl, University of Houston
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