Perhaps ranking behind only bullets and water, blood is one of those things you really don’t want to run out of on the battlefield. But better battlefield medicine — as well as some of the more malicious combat techniques employed by insurgent guerrilla fighters — mean more soldiers are surviving their injuries, and that puts military blood banks in a bind. But a DARPA program launched in 2008 is coming to fruition, potentially providing medics an endless stream of universally accepted O-negative blood through a process known as blood pharming.
Two years ago, DARPA set a goal of creating a self-contained, synthetic platform that can cultivate red blood cells that can stand up to the violent demands of the battlefield. Through the process of “pharming,” or genetically engineering an organism to generate large quantities of a useful substance, the DoD’s R&D arm was hoping to end blood shortages on the battlefield for good.
A company awarded nearly $2 million to develop this genetically engineered blood product has shipped off the first shipment to the FDA, hoping the regulators will approve it for use in trauma wards everywhere. The biotech company, Arteriocyte, can turn an umbilical cord into 20 units of blood in about three days at a cost of about $5,000 per unit. That’s a bit steep, but if the FDA approves the blood product and the company is able to scale the production method, fake blood could be the real deal.
And here’s why: most military blood is donated on the ground in the U.S., meaning it has to be shipped under special conditions to faraway war zones, adding expense and time lag to the process. Most blood is at least 21 days old when it reaches far-flung battlefields. At that point, it has a shelf-life of seven days before some medical experts say it is expired (as Danger Room points out, this is disputed; for instance, the Red Cross gives blood 42 days before tossing it). Some say blood starts to go bad in just 14 days, or a week before it lands in combat zones.
If Arteriocyte can get the cost down, pharmed blood could replace the donated stuff within five years, though the brass may push the FDA to fast-track it if necessary. Hopefully the coming years will see a reduced need for large quantities of battlefield blood, but it’s good to know we could churn out a vast supply in a pinch.