Synthetic blood and blood products for combat casualty care and beyond

Andrew P. Cap, Jeremy W. Cannon*, Michael C. Reade

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Synthetic biology adopts an engineering design approach to create innovative treatments that are reliable, scalable, and customizable to individual patients. Interest in substitutes for allogenic blood components, primarily red blood cells and platelets, increased in the 1980s because of concerns over infectious disease transmission. However, only now, with emerging synthetic approaches, are such substitutes showing genuine promise. Affordable alternatives to donated blood would be of enormous benefit worldwide. Several approaches to replacing the oxygen-carrying function of red cells are under advanced investigation. Hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers incorporate modifications to reduce the renal toxicity and nitric oxide scavenging of free hemoglobin. While use of earlier-generation hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers may be limited to circumstances in which blood transfusion is not an option, recent advances in chemical modification of hemoglobin may eventually overcome such problems. Another approach encases hemoglobin molecules in biocompatible synthetic nanoparticles. An alternative is the ex vivo production of red cells in bioreactors, with or without genetic manipulation, that offers the potential of a universal donor product. Various strategies to manufacture synthetic platelets are also underway, ranging from simple phospholipid liposomes encapsulating adenosine diphosphate and decorated with fibrinogen fragments, to more complex capsules with multiple receptor peptide sequences. Ex vivo production of platelets in bioreactors is also possible including, for example, platelets derived from induced pluripotent stem cells that are differentiated into a megakaryocytic lineage. Prior to clinical use, trials assessing synthetic blood components must evaluate meaningful safety and effectiveness outcomes in relatively large numbers of critically ill patients. Overcoming these challenges may be as much a hurdle as product design. This article reviews the state of the science of the synthetic biology approach to developing blood component substitutes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S26-S32
JournalJournal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Blood transfusion
  • blood platelets
  • blood substitutes
  • erythrocytes
  • synthetic biology


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