This discovery is a couple of years old, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how humanity can improve itself (or as some folks call it “transhumanism”).

Scientists from the University of Sheffield are developing an artificial ‘plastic blood’, which could act as a substitute for real blood in emergency situations. The ‘plastic blood’, which will be on display at the Science Museum this month, could have a huge impact on military applications.

Because the artificial blood is made from a plastic, it is light to carry and easy to store. Doctors could store the substitute as a thick paste in a blood bag and then dissolve it in water just before giving it to patients – meaning it’s easier to transport than liquid blood.

Donated blood has a relatively short shelf-life of 35 days, after which it must be thrown away. It also needs refrigeration, whereas the ‘plastic blood’ will be storable for many more days and is stable at room temperature.

The artificial blood is made of plastic molecules that hold an iron atom at their core, just like haemoglobin, that can bind oxygen and could transport it around the body. The small plastic molecules join together in a tree-like branching structure, with a size and shape very similar to that of natural haemoglobin molecules. This creates the right environment for the iron to bind oxygen in the lungs and release it in the body.

While still in its development, the scientists hope this will make it particularly useful for military applications and being plastic, it’s also affordable. The scientists are now seeking further funding to develop a final prototype that would be suitable for biological testing.

Dr Lance Twyman, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Sheffield and who has been developing the artificial blood for the last five years, said: “We are very excited about the potential for this product and about the fact that this could save lives. Many people die from superficial wounds when they are trapped in an accident or are injured on the battlefield and can’t get blood before they get to hospital. This product can be stored a lot more easily than blood, meaning large quantities could be carried easily by ambulances and the armed forces.
Sheffield University

This discovery is clearly of immense use in reducing the reliance on blood donation, which requires a high degree of testing and processing to ensure that no pathogens are transmitted. The just-add-water system, low cost, and long shelf life will make it easy to keep a supply almost anywhere where it might conceivably be of use. That’s fantastic, but might it also be able to bring the idea of transhumans one step closer?

If these oxygen-carrying plastic molecules were injected into the blood of a normal healthy individual, who has not suffered blood-loss, what would be the result?

It seems reasonable to think that the oxygen carrying capacity of their blood would be increased. This would have the effect of increasing endurance, but has also been linked to increased brain-function. Essentially then, it would make you tougher and smarter, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me if it’s cheap and has no horrible side-effects.

Athletes have been making use of the benefits of increased oxygen supply for some time, of course. Traditionally though, they have just injected regular blood, which is not terribly convenient, and the benefits are short-lived (though more than long enough to win a race):

To implement this form of doping, athletes collect and store several units of blood—their own or someone elses’—in the months prior to competition and then transfuse it back into themselves just prior to the event. One well-known instance of this practice occurred at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico when an athlete broke the outdoor one-hour cycling record. He was accompanied to the games by two cardiologists and eight young men with blood types compatible with his own. – Illumin

Fairly ghoulish, and not available to most people. Thank goodness. Playing blood doll to an vampiric athlete must count as one of the worst jobs out there.

The other more modern method used involves the drug erythropoietin, or EPO, which causes the bone-marrow to produce extra haemoglobin. As well as increasing your athletic performance, EPO also causes blood-clots and seizures. Both methods are banned by sporting organisations.

Increasing the carrying capacity of blood might also be of use during pregnancy to help avoid certain complications that can arise in the unborn child. It might also reduce the (rare) complications that can arise when anaesthesia is used during surgery.

One potential downside to this would depend upon how quickly these artificial molecules are removed or metabolised. It is possible that they aren’t removed, and will happily bob around in your blood for years, or they might be filtered out in a matter of days. Having to get a weekly injection would be a big turn-off for most folks, though clearly not some professional athletes, who as recent history has shown are often more than happy to have mysterious substances shot into their veins on a daily basis.

If the effects are long-lived, the process is cheap enough for us commoners, and lacks unpleasant side-effects, then it would seem to be a good candidate for improving ourselves beyond our current capabilities. Even if this particular method turns out to be unsuitable for this purpose, it seems likely that a suitable technique to achieve increased blood oxygen will eventually be discovered.

Would you be up for something like that, or does it curdle your boringly unenhanced blood with horror?


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