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Daybreakers‘ Ethan Hawke Should Turn to British Scientists for a Blood Substitute

Daybreakers‘ Ethan Hawke Should Turn to British Scientists for a Blood Substitute” width=”560″/>

In the futuristic vampire thriller Daybreakers, Ethan Hawke’s fangy hematologist Edward Dalton is hard at work trying to find a substitute for human blood. It may sound like scifi, but for years real scientists have been racing to find the same thing. So far, they’ve been about as successful as Hawke’s character, which is to say not very. But now scientists at the University of Essex have made a breakthrough, engineering a promising version of one of blood’s main ingredients, hemoglobin.

Biochemist Chris Cooper and his team believe their work could lead to the creation of a blood-like product that is compatible with all blood types, virus free and readily available, making it even better than real blood. (As a bonus, it could save us from being farmed for food if big business becomes less about healing the sick and more about feeding the undead, as is the case in the vampire thriller). What makes Cooper’s “hemoglobin,” for which his team has submitted a worldwide patent, more likely to lead to a safe blood substitute than the methods that failed before? Put simply: It’s less toxic.

When working properly, hemoglobin — the red molecule inside blood cells — turns from red to an appetizing claret as it carries oxygen around the body. But outside the protective environment of the red cell, it becomes damaged and produces brown and green products that are dangerous to humans (and as a potential food source for vamps, probably distasteful). “Basically, hemoglobin produces free radicals that can damage the heart and kidneys,” says Cooper. “The trick with artificial blood is to modify the molecule to be less toxic, but still perform the vital role of carrying oxygen around the body.” The problem, explains Cooper is that no one’s quite managed to do that yet.

If his team’s less toxic hemoglobin fails, there is another method that’s showing promise. In 2008, scientist Robert Lanza and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic and University of Illinois developed a technique to generate blood from stem cells. “We literally generated whole tubes in the lab, from scratch,” says Lanza, chief science officer at Advanced Cell Technologies. Tests showed the blood cells to be identical to each other, and able to carry oxygen as efficiently as their natural counterparts. But like Willem Dafoe’s cure for vampirism — namely step into the sun then douse the flames before you die — it’s safety has yet to be proven.

Fortunately, real scientists have a lot more time to find a safe substitute. They’re also not fighting to save humanity from extinction. But, with more than 75 millions units of blood given to people each year and medics struggling to keep up supplies, their work is still important. And on the off chance that a bat does bite a man and infect him with a disease that turns most of humanity into bloodsuckers, it would be a good product to have on hand and would certainly go a long way towards improving human-vampire relations.

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