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Blood Substitute Could Save Lives

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, May 22, 1998 – Imagine a soldier shot in the stomach, blood streaming from his torn gut. Can medics get him to a field hospital for a transfusion in time to save him? Perhaps. Probably not.

Approved trials under way at Brooke Army Medical Center here and 10 other non-DoD laboratories could greatly decrease deaths from such catastrophic blood loss. Chief of trauma services, Army Dr. (Maj.) Stephen Flaherty, oversees a protocol that converts cow blood for human use. The end product is a purified blood substitute called Biopure.

Biopure and similar products being tested have several distinct advantages over regular blood, Flaherty said. They don't require blood typing and crossing. They don't carry transmittable diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis, or in the case of animals, such infections as "mad cow" disease. There's never any reaction by patients receiving the substitutes. And these products don't require refrigeration. In fact, Biopure can be stored for two years at room temperature, whereas human blood must be frozen or refrigerated fresh and used within about six weeks.

"DoD has problems with shortages, storage and pre-positioning of real blood," Flaherty said. "Biopure would eliminate those problems."

Biopure is made by stripping hemoglobin from red blood cells and purifying it. Hemoglobin is hemoglobin; the human body doesn't care that it's from purified cow blood, Flaherty said.

During initial trials, Brooke Army Medical Center will transfuse patients undergoing operations that produce large blood loss. Later, the substitute will be tested on trauma patients -- car accident victims, for example.

The substitute serves as a bridge: A patient enters the operating room with a normal blood count. During the operation, the blood count drops. Medics transfuse the patient with the substitute, which is good for two or three days. Meanwhile, the body regenerates its own red cells.

The product comes in durable bags that resemble the IV solution containers field medics carry.

"In combat, blood substitutes may allow soldiers who are injured to get to the hospital, where they might previously have died on the battlefield," Flaherty said.

Brooke Army Medical Center only recently began testing Biopure. Medical officials get patients' voluntary approval to use the blood products. The trials are expected to last two to four years. No cost has been established for the product if and when it's fielded, but line officers "are aware and interested," Flaherty said.

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