University of Louisville researchers Jonathan Kopechek, Brett Janis and Michael Menze, from left, are using ultrasound in a new process to dry blood for military, health care and space flight applications. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

University of Louisville researchers hope that a novel approach to use ultrasound to dry blood will ease shortages in remote locations, enable delivery by drone — and even facilitate long journeys in space.

The researchers — Jonathan Kopechek, assistant professor of bioengineering; Michael Menze, associate professor of biology; and Brett Janis, a UofL doctoral student in molecular biology — told Insider that their approach would make it much easier to store blood, to save it for longer periods and to rehydrate it without any need for special equipment. The drying and rehydration process also would cut costs compared to current storage methods and would ease emergency responses during disasters and could help patients preparing for surgeries.

Dried blood in a vial. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Today, blood can be stored in refrigerators no longer than 42 days before it has to be discarded, per Food and Drug Administration rules. To store blood longer, it has to go through a cumbersome freezing process that involves the addition of glycerol, which has to be removed during the thawing process. Frozen blood can be kept for 10 years — but it has to be stored in a freezer at -112 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it costly and impractical for uses in remote locations. The thawing process also takes several hours, which makes it impractical when the blood is needed immediately, such as when a soldier is hemorrhaging from a grievous wound on the battlefield.

“A lot of doctors can’t wait that long,” said Menze.

With dried blood, doctors could simply add water and, within minutes, use the rehydrated blood for a transfusion. Soldiers, for example, could carry dried blood in a pack that also contains some water.

The UofL researchers’ approach to drying blood involves the use of trehalose, a sugar that enables some plants and animals to survive long periods — even thousands of years — of extreme dryness.

While other scientists have combined the sugar and blood, the UofL researchers have significantly accelerated the process by firing ultrasound at a solution of blood and trehalose to enable the blood to absorb the sugar. The local researchers’ approach also has significantly increased the share of blood that is viable after drying and rehydration.

They’re working on optimizing the process and plan to test rehydrated blood on rats next year.

“Those will be critical experiments to show feasibility,” Kopechek said. Clinical trials are at least three years away.

Surgeries, disasters, space

The researchers setup at the Donald E. Baxter Biomedical Research Building Center involves ultrasound to enable blood to absorb a sugar. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Menze said that blood transfusions are necessary for many life-saving procedures but often are not available in remote locations because of lack of access to electricity and refrigeration. Dried blood could easily be stored anywhere and simply rehydrated for almost immediate use.

And, Kopechek said, dried blood could address blood shortages in humanitarian crises or when blood cannot be delivered because war or natural disasters are making roads impassable.

More than 1 million children die annually because of lack of access to blood, he said.

Ambulances could more easily carry blood and make it available to patients who cannot wait until they reach the hospital.

Blood banks typically collect only enough blood to meet their projected needs because they don’t store the substance for more than 42 days. Dried blood could stabilize the blood supply because it can be kept for a decade.

Cities could stockpile dried blood for natural disasters, mass shootings and terrorist attacks.

And, the researchers said, people could more easily and cheaply prepare for their own surgeries by having some of their blood dried to make it available for a transfusion.

Storage alone for frozen blood costs about $100 per unit, and the UofL researchers estimate their process would cost about $20 per unit.

Part of the local researchers’ work was funded by a $50,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, which, they said, helped them establish “proof of principle.”

The trio will present its research at a NASA workshop this month. Kopechek said that dried blood weighs less than frozen blood, which would make it less expensive to launch into space, never mind that astronauts would not need to bring or know how to operate complicated machinery to thaw frozen blood.

“We can see how this could be very useful for long-term space missions,” Kopechek said.

The researchers also are working the National Science Foundation and a local startup accelerator to turn their approach into a business.