Dr. Wujie Zhang, assistant professor of biomolecular engineering, is the principal investigator on a project to develop a synthetic red blood cell material using natural polymers that are not harmful to human tissue.
"This allows for universal blood typing with no screening requirements as well as a longer shelf-life," said Zhang. "It is more cost-effective than traditional blood donations, and there are no ethical or religious-related concerns with its use." Applications include emergency situations in battlefield and refugee environments, and blood centers.
Zhang originally advised an MSOE biomolecular engineering senior project team with Dr. Jung Lee, assistant professor, which was working to optimize an oral drug delivery system that used pectin-encapsulated curcumin to treat colon cancer. But they discovered that the structure of the pectin hydrogel very closely resembled that of a red blood cell. The students shifted their focus to engineering pectin hydrogel-based artificial red blood cells.
Initial funding came from the Milwaukee I-Corps Program. Zhang and Lee then partnered with Gene Wright of MSOE's Rader School of Business, and they received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation I-Corps program and training to transfer knowledge into real products or processes.
"We're developing a product that will help people in the future," said MSOE student Sydney Stephens.
A major project goal is to scale down the size of the artificial cells and test their ability to carry oxygen. "We've created the exact size and shape of the red blood cell," said Kellen O'Connell, MSOE student. "In our trials, the cells have averaged seven micrometers in size. Real red blood cells average seven to nine micrometers."
This patent-pending applied research offers MSOE students real-life experience in developing and commercializing a new product in an interdisciplinary environment.
The team is pursuing additional funding to further develop the product and commercialize it. "This is a unique opportunity we have at MSOE where science, technology and business can work together to bring value to the world," said Wright.
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