Manufacturing artificial red blood cells may turn out to be significant in treating a number of diseases and conditions. This has been tried in the past by a number of teams, but some important functions were missing in every design. Now, a team of scientists at the University of New Mexico have developed artificial red blood cells that can perform all the main functions of the real cells that they mimic.
The artificial cells, which are as squeezable as the real ones, can carry hemoglobin, and so bind oxygen, while at the same time presenting the necessary proteins on their surface so that the immune system recognizes them as native. These characteristics give the new cells the ability to travel through narrow vessels freely and to transport oxygen where needed.
Right now, making the new cells requires starting with a donor sample of red blood cells, which get coated with silica. Charged polymer particles, both positive and negative, are stuck to the silica and then the silica itself is etched away. The result is a soft and squishy “cell” to which red blood cell membranes can be attached to avoid immune system attack.
The researchers were able to squeeze these artificial cells through man-made capillaries and they bounced right back into their original shape. They then tested the cells in mice, and they survived for more than 48 hours without causing any noticeable harm to the animals.
While these devices mimic the capabilities of real blood cells, they can also be used to deliver drugs, as well as other therapeutic and diagnostic agents. To demonstrate this, the New Mexico team was able to load their artificial red blood cells with a drug used in cancer therapy, as well as magnetic nanoparticles, and nano-scale biosensors.