Halcyon Biomedical Aims to “Wash” Blood for Safer Transfusions

Nearly 10 million people in America donate blood every year, which starts the clock ticking on a perishable product becoming less and less useable.

Blood cells can get damaged during donation or in the storage process. Burst cells, for example, could lead to inflammation or blood clots in a recipient. The longer blood sits before a transfusion, the more the burst or damaged cells can build up, says Sergey Shevkoplyas, a co-founder of Halcyon Biomedical, based in Houston.

“There’s no reason to transfuse anything but well-preserved cells,” says Shevkoplyas, who is also an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Houston. “All that additional waste is transferred into the system and only burdens an already sick individual.”

In addition to the deteriorated blood cells, the anticoagulant-preservative solution that’s mixed with the blood to keep the cells alive during storage, is also transferred into patients during transfusions, he added.

Halcyon is developing a device that can not only separate the deteriorated cells and biowaste from healthy ones in stored blood but do so in quantities of blood that are useful for transfusions. Deteriorated cells become “spiky; they look like sea urchins,” he says, as compared to healthy cells which are “nice-looking spheres—doughnuts without the hole.”

Halcyon has a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that started in 2012 to build a prototype that the company hopes to bring to market. The current prototype is a plastic device, just a few inches in size. Two tubes—one that will feed blood into the device, and another that will push through saline solution—connect to the device.

First, the saline will wash harmful particles and the storage solution off of the healthy red blood cells. Next, the entire mixture will be sent through an array of human hair-sized microchannels, where the shape, size, and flexibility of healthy blood cells will separate them from particles, damaged cells, and storage solution. (The innovation is in the design of the microchannels, Shevkoplyas says.) At that point, the saline, which is acting as a transport medium, delivers the healthy cells to a patient in a transfusion.

Shevkoplyas says current prototypes Halcyon has developed can wash very small amounts of blood—a drop or two, up to the amount in a shot of vodka. “Scaling up from one drop of blood to one liter of blood is not trivial at all,” he added.

It’s still very early days for Halcyon, which was founded by Shevkoplyas and Sean Gifford, a research assistant professor in biomedical engineering at the University of Houston. They are still tweaking prototypes in order to devise the one they feel is ready for animal trials, which might not happen for two years yet. A commercial product is not expected to be in hand until years after that.

Gifford says their path to commercialization is a long one indeed. But he added that he believes that “pre-transfusion blood washing will be recognized as an obvious and routine practice, especially for the most vulnerable patients.”

At the same time, Gifford says, Halcyon is working on making a device that can provide this service at an economically viable price point, about $50, so that caregivers will consider blood washing as part of the normal protocol in giving blood transfusions.

The company’s work fits into a broader innovation trend related to other efforts in labs and companies to preserve the health of stored blood. Each year, about 5 million patients receive blood annually, resulting in a total of 14.6 million transfusions per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

For example, New Health Sciences’ approach is to develop an anaerobic storage bag that minimizes the oxidative damage to red blood cells in storage. The Bethesda, MD, firm raised $12.3 million in an equity funding last December.

“You cannot save people’s lives without blood transfusions,” Shevkoplyas says. “We’re just trying to make this life-saving procedure as safe as possible.”

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