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Dr. Wujie Zhang (middle) works with MSOE biomolecular students like Samantha Wiskirchen (left) and Damien Phakousohn (right) every year on his artificial red blood cell project.

Experts have been working hard to perfect artificial red blood cells for decades to no avail, but the first person who may succeed is based right here in metro Milwaukee. 

Six years ago, Dr. Wujie Zhang, associate professor of biomolecular engineering at MSOE, was working on a project to design a hydrogel system for colonic drug delivery in an effort to treat colonic diseases when he observed a new development.

“We accidentally noticed that we could make red blood cell shaped hydrogel particles,” he explains. “That’s why we started then to create artificial red blood cells to mimic pretty much all aspects of a red blood cell.” 

Since the inception, Zhang has worked with a new group of MSOE biomolecular engineering seniors each year to get closer to completing the cells, narrowing their focus every time on mimicking different red blood cell traits, like the vital biconcave shape.

“The biconcave shape of a red blood cell optimizes the surface area,” explains Damien Phakousonh, MSOE biomolecular engineering student and project manager of the artificial red blood cell project. “So the ability for it to transfer oxygen is at its best when it’s the biconcave shape because it has the most surface area to interact with the oxygen or the CO2. That’s why that shape is important.”

The cells also mimic the size of a red blood cell and host a synthetic oxygen transporter to replace hemoglobin, making the entire cell manmade. 

“We are going to make it fully synthetic so it will have nothing to do with human or animal substance. It will be pretty much plant based,” Zhang explains. Being plant-based, he adds, is beneficial on several fronts, one being cultures and religions that forbid blood transfusions, as well as the benefit of a longer shelf life than real blood. 

“What we’re not trying to develop artificial blood. It’s the artificial red blood cell and oxygen therapeutics,” adds Zhang. “So we’re not really replacing the whole blood but replacing the red blood cell part of it. Mostly when people need transfusions, it’s to make sure they have enough oxygen to keep them alive — so that’s our goal. It’s not really replacing the whole blood.”

The next step, says Samantha Wiskirchen, senior biomolecular engineering student and CFO of the artificial red blood cell project, is mastering mass production. 

“Our next goal is to basically design an industrial scale-up design so that we can figure out how to produce this, or large-mass produce this,” Wiskirchen explains of the team’s current aim. “I was really interested in the biology behind it, about how we could basically mimic a red blood cell, and I like the process engineering behind it and how we can take this product and scale it up into a lot of projects.”

Phakousonh agrees, adding that the importance of the project drew him in, as well as its ensuing news coverage.

“I saw a lot of the news coverage of the project itself, so I was very interested in how the project has such a high impact, especially for a problem that is very huge in the United States and in other countries,” Phakousonh says. “An impactful project like this meant a lot to me, especially since we’re reaching the end of the project with working on stability and the industrial scale up design, so that’s why I wanted to work on this project.”

One enormously helpful part of the project, notes Phakousonh and Wiskirchen, was being able to get in touch with past students who worked on the project when they needed more information from their phases. “Just being able to use each other and use our resources [that] we have and one of them being the alumni from this program or from [students] who worked previously on this project is really cool,” Wiskirchen says.

The seniors agree that it’s inspirational to see how far the project has come with each passing year and that they’re honored to be a part of something so important. 

As of now, the cells are currently patent-pending, a promising step, according to Zhang. But once the patent is approved, there’s still a long road of trials and obtaining an FDA approval. Meantime, Zhang encourages eligible blood donors to still get out there and do their part. 

“People feel like we don’t need to donate now, but we still need donations, especially the more rare blood types,” Zhang encourages. MKE

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