Donated blood generally has a six-week shelf life, but University of Louisville researchers are testing a way to convert red blood cells into a longer-lasting powder that potentially could save the lives of soldiers, trauma patients and maybe even astronauts.
U of L professors Michael Menze and Jonathan Kopechek, as well as Ph.D. candidate Brett Janis, have spent two years developing this "freeze-dried" approach to storing blood, which has drawn interest from the U.S. military, NASA, emergency responders and other groups.
"So many people told us, 'We really want this. We really need this,'" Kopechek said.
Menze and Kopechek, with the help of Janis, as well as various U of L students, have devised a process of preserving red blood cells though freezing and dehydration. The cells are turned into a powder that remains viable at a wider range of temperatures than donated blood, which has to be refrigerated.
They believe their approach could make donated red blood cells more easily stored and transported, in addition to allowing them to be stockpiled for longer periods of time.
When someone donates blood, it is separated into different components, including plasma, platelets and red blood cells, said Dr. Dennis Williams, the Kentucky Blood Center's medical director.
Regulations require red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body, to be used within 42 days. After that, they must be disposed of, although Williams said that doesn't happen often.
Williams suggested there could be benefits to using the freeze-dried red blood cells, although he said blood banks already have an efficient system of collecting, maintaining and transporting blood.
"If it became a standard way of processing and storing blood, it would definitely be helpful," he said. "It's easier than having to have refrigerators that you're constantly monitoring."
Menze, Kopechek and Janis said their freeze-drying process, if it proves to be effective once they test it in humans, could be a big help to the military, which often operates in extreme environments, making it even tougher to lug refrigerated cases of blood into the field.
NASA also has taken an interest in their research, Menze said. The federal agency is providing $275,000 in funding so they can test the process of rehydrating the freeze-dried red blood cells during flights that simulate zero gravity.
In particular, he said, NASA could be interested in the possibility of using this lightweight form of red blood cells for long-distance spaceflight, which is itself theoretical at this point but could involve a risk of radiation-induced anemia for astronauts.
"Microgravity can impact new technologies in unexpected ways," Stephan Ord, with NASA's Flight Opportunities Program, said in an emailed statement. "NASA sponsors suborbital flight tests so researchers can refine and mature their technologies before proposing them for further development or even implementation into future missions."