Engineering red blood

Seniors develop solution to blood shortages

Class of 2017

Photo of the "Heme Team"

Biomolecular engineering seniors are developing engineered red blood cells. Members of “The Heme Team” are, back, left to right: Haley Steiner, Rebecca Schroeder, Nataline Duerig, Kellen O’Connell; front: Dr. Wujie Zhang, faculty advisor (left) and Sydney Stephens, project manager.

According to the American Red Cross, more than 41,000 blood donations are needed every day, which corresponds to a $1.5 billion annual market. Significant challenges exist to traditional blood donation, including limited shelf-life, difficulty storing and transferring the blood, blood type mismatches and cost.

A solution is being developed at MSOE: engineered red blood cells. Dr. Wujie Zhang, an assistant professor in the Physics and Chemistry Department, 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. “This makes the material far more cost-effective than traditional blood donations, and there are no ethical or religious-related concerns with its use.” Potential applications include emergency situations of all kinds—battlefield and refugee environments as well as use in blood centers globally.

Zhang did not set out to develop engineered blood. This, like many other great scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, happened accidentally. In 2013, Zhang advised an MSOE biomolecular engineering senior project team with co-advisor Dr. Jung Lee, whose goal was to optimize an oral drug delivery system that used curcumin, a natural spice found in turmeric, to treat colon cancer. Students investigated using pectin, a natural biopolymer that is extracted from the rind of citrus fruits and digested mainly in the colon by bacteria, to encapsulate the curcumin.

“During the team’s work, we discovered that the structure of the pectin hydrogel very closely resembled that of a red blood cell—a biconcave disk with a flattened center on both sides,” said Zhang. This discovery is what led to his engineered red blood cell research project, which has involved MSOE students from the beginning.

After concluding their senior project, Zach Crouse ’14, Jenna Harvestine ’14, Kiki Mahuta ’14 and Brandon Mikulski ’14 shifted their focus to engineering pectin hydrogel-based artificial red blood cells. The project was joined by Dr. Matey Kaltchev, Physics and Chemistry Department, Dr. Charles Tritt, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, two representatives from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Dr. Katarina Midelfort, former MSOE faculty member.

Initial funding for the project came from the Milwaukee I-Corps Program (see sidebar). Zhang and Lee then partnered with Gene Wright ’79, ’87, Rader School of Business, and they received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation I-Corps program. In addition, the trio received hands-on, immersive learning about what it takes to successfully transfer knowledge into real products or processes that benefit society.

Petri dish with artificial red blood cells

This petri dish contains the microscopic artificial red blood cells suspended in an oligochitosan solution. Oligochitosan is a small sugar that holds the microcapsule structure.

“Before we took the class, we were convinced that the most important thing to saving lives was finding partners to help us gain FDA approval and manufacture our product,” said Lee. I-Corps taught them to interview potential stakeholders in the product.

They conducted more than 100 interviews across the country with the American Red Cross, Blood Center of Wisconsin, American Medical Association, Department of Veteran’s Affairs and hospital blood banks, paramedics and emergency management personnel. In doing so they learned about the blood transfusion ecosystem in the U.S.—not only how the blood is collected, tested and distributed, but also what roles laboratories, insurance companies, Medicare/Medicaid and patients play.

“Our ‘ah-ha’ moment occurred during an interview with a hospital medical director in Chicago. He explained his problems with blood supply and told the team they could potentially change the entire blood industry,” said Lee. “After this class the most surprising thing we learned was the impact of engineered blood is not saving lives, but eliminating the entire time and cost of testing, logistics and other safety procedures.”

The major project goal now is to scale down the size of the artificial cells and test their ability to carry oxygen. A biomolecular engineering senior design team named “The Heme Team,” led by Zhang and Lee, was successful in part of that quest. “We’ve been able to create the exact size and shape of the red blood cell,” said student Kellen O’Connell. “In our trials, the cells have averaged seven micrometers in size. Real red blood cells average seven to nine micrometers.”

This applied research offers students real-life experience in developing and commercializing a new product in an interdisciplinary environment.

“The most exciting part of this project is that we’re developing a product that will hopefully help people in the future,” said student Sydney Stephens, 2016-17 team project manager. “Drs. Zhang and Lee are excellent advisors. They constantly look for opportunities for our team to establish networking connections and market our project. They allow us to work independently and explore ideas, while maintaining direction for the project and giving us helpful advice.”

There are currently two other teams working on the project. A biomedical engineering senior design team, under the supervision of Tritt, is working on building a system for detecting the oxygen transport ability of the artificial cells. Dr. Nebojsa Sebastijanovic, assistant mechanical engineering professor, has been advising students on the mechanical properties testing of the artificial cells.

The team has applied for a patent and is pursuing additional NSF funding to further develop the product and eventually 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.

I-Corps Program

MSOE faculty

Gene Wright (left), Dr. Jung Lee (center) and Dr. Wujie Zhang attended an I-Corps training workshop on commercializing engineered red blood cells.

MSOE faculty and students are engaged in applied research projects to solve practical problems. The Milwaukee I-Corps Program (, which is the National Science Foundation Innovation-Corps Site of Southeastern Wisconsin, provided an initial grant of $2,400 to the artificial red blood cell project team of Dr. Wujie Zhang (principal investigator), Dr. Jung Lee (entrepreneurial lead) and Dr. Fred Berry (mentor), former MSOE vice president of academics. The program fosters commercialization of applied academic research and faculty/student innovation.

Recognizing that they had an opportunity to commercialize this new product, Zhang, Lee and Gene Wright (mentor) applied for and received a National Science Foundation I-Corps program grant of $50,000, a first for MSOE. Along with the funding, they received entrepreneurship training through a targeted curriculum.

“I-Corps uses the Lean Launchpad methodology developed at Stanford University. It moves researchers ‘out of the building’ in direct communication with potential customers to insure that they are solving a real problem, and that the researchers are working on a solution that has a solid value proposition that people will pay for,” said Wright. “It’s a strong method, and I have been teaching the Lean Launchpad principles in MSOE’s graduate level innovation and entrepreneurship courses for a few years now.”

Supplemental funding has been awarded through MSOE Faculty Development Grants and Seed Money Grants from the MSOE Rader School of Business so that the teams can continue their work.

In the News

MSOE students attempt to solve blood shortage problem
March 22, 2017 – WTMJ – Ch. 4

MSOE students making advancements in artificial blood creation
March 22, 2017 – WDJT – Ch. 58

“Great impact on the field:” MSOE students research possible solution to blood shortages
March 22, 2017 – WITI – Ch. 6

How these college students are working to fix the blood shortage problem
March 23, 2017 – Becker’s Hospital Review

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