LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Groundbreaking research at the University of Louisville is on its way to helping astronauts in space.
A team of students and faculty has discovered how to freeze-dry blood and is testing its ability to rehydrate in zero gravity. They've worked for years to get to this point, discovering how to store blood in any environment.
It wouldn't need refrigeration. It wouldn't go bad past 42 days. It could last a lifetime. It needs only water to rehydrate and NASA's taking notice.
"The question comes up: if you're in reduced gravity or zero gravity, will the red blood cells rehydrate correctly? And will they function like normal red blood cells?" George Pantalos said. Pantalos is a professor of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery at UofL.
Dr. Michael Menze, an associate professor of biology, and Dr. Jonathan Kopechek, an assistant professor of bioengineering at UofL led the group of students and faculty, who practiced their theories here on earth for months. In November, NASA funded their experiments aboard a Boeing 727 jet owned by the company ZERO G.
Video inside that test flight shows the team having a fun few moments, floating around the jet. Once they hit 30,000 feet, the plane went into a free-fall, simulating a weightless environment.
The team completed more than 50 weightless cycles during two flights to test the rehydrating process, using 3D-printed surgical instruments and doing it all within 15 seconds each time. They worked around a glove box, much like an incubator, with everyone strapped down to keep their movements steady. They used dried blood in 5-milliliter and 10-milliliter volumes.
"It allows you to work with hazardous materials, like blood and water, so that they don't get out of control, or float away from you," Pantalos said.
If successful, this would be a breakthrough for any team of astronauts because they would be able to receive blood transfusions in space. Right now, if they need blood, the nearest hospital is six hours away, back on earth.
"They have to be completely independent as far as their healthcare," Pantalos said.
For future trips to the Moon or even Mars, the ability to store freeze-dried blood would allow for years-long missions without ever needing to return home.
Back on the ZERO G test flight, their 15 seconds are up. UofL researchers found massaging the bag of rehydrated blood worked. Oxygen levels were normal.
The next step: doing it all over again in November, this time, on a much larger scale. Scientists plan to rehydrate up to 350 milliliters of blood, which would be needed in an actual transfusion therapy situation.