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Synthetic Blood: How Whales May Inspire a Medical Miracle

Sep 26, 2015 09:39 PM EDT
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Every year more than 100 million blood donations are collected globally, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), that's not nearly enough. Synthetic blood would be one ideal solution, but it has long been nothing more than a pipe dream. Now, thanks to new research on deep-diving whales, researchers suddenly think they've figured out the secret to making this medical miracle a reality.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which details how a new understanding of whale blood has brought scientists one step closer to inventing lab-made hemoglobin.

Like most aquatic mammals, whales are clearly adapted for dives, boasting larger and stronger lungs capable of not only holding impressive amounts of oxygen, but also resisting the pressures of the deep. A recent study even determined that that dolphins can move air in and out of their lungs three to four times faster than humans overall, helping them resist dangerous phenomena like 'the bends.'

However, the diving superiority of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) doesn't just stop there. As it turns out, their entire bodies - on a cellular level - are capable of storing more oxygen.

"Whales and other deep-diving marine mammals can pack 10-20 times more myoglobin into their cells than humans can, and that allows them to 'download' oxygen directly into their skeletal muscles and stay active even when they are holding their breath," biochemist John Olson explained in a statement. (Scroll to read on...)

sperm whale
(Photo : Gabriel Barathieu)

Myoglobin is a muscle protein essential for storing oxygen. When we exercise, our muscles readily use new oxygen delivered to break down sugars and make energy. However, temporary reserves in myoglobin are also put to use, much like an electrical circuit will use a capacitor. This regulates how much oxygen a body gets overall and can determine long it will take before muscles resort to building up lactic acid (responsible for 'the burn' during a workout) to make energy.

Just like cramming clothes into a suitcase, how well myoglobin folds into a cell can determine how much each muscle cell can hold. In humans, that's apparently not a lot.

However, "the reason whale meat is so dark is that it's filled with myoglobin that is capable of holding oxygen," Olson said.

Why is that important? The brightness of 'raw meat' you're used to seeing at restaurants occurs only after oxygen-touting heme - which is characteristically red - binds with these folded muscle proteins.

"When the myoglobin is newly made, it does not yet contain heme," the researcher added. "We found that the stability of heme-free myoglobin is the key factor that allows cells to produce high amounts of myoglobin."

Specifically, Olson and his colleagues found that whale myoglobin is up to 60 times more stable than the human variety.

Still, it's important to note that the researcher has spent the last 20 years of his life trying to craft synthetic blood, not myoglobin. So why is this discovery important? (Scroll to read on...)

Myoglobin (left) (blue) wraps around oxygen toting heme (grey) much like a baseball glove. Hemoglobin (right) (blue/red) is related and carries heme (green) in a similar fashion.
(Photo : CC0 / Richard Wheeler (Zephyris) 2007) Myoglobin (left) (blue) wraps around oxygen toting heme (grey) much like a baseball glove. Hemoglobins (right) (blue/red) are related and carry heme (green) in a similar fashion.

As it turns out, Olsen is trying to create a strain of bacteria that can generate massive quantities of the globulin that carries heme in blood, called hemoglobin. By understanding how a globulin can efficiently fold, he and his team now believe that crafting exceptionally efficient hemoglobin factories is possible.

And that's huge, especially for third-world countries. According to the WHO, 75 struggling countries still lack adequate blood donation numbers (10 donations per 1000 citizens), while hundreds still lack the scientific means to properly screen donations before using them to save lives.

"Safe blood transfusion is one of the key life-saving interventions that should be available for patients in need," Edward Kelley, Director of Service Delivery and Safety at WHO, said in a statement. "Yet, equitable access to safe blood still remains a major challenge in many countries."

Lab-made blood could change all that, as there is little-to-no risk of contamination. This medical miracle is still very-much just a dream, but thanks to whales, it's now one step closer to becoming a reality.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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