In 1971, with the Vietnam War still raging, the U.S. Army was intent on developing a blood substitute that could be used on battlefield casualties. The Army’s goal was one of the primary reasons it established the Letterman Army Institute of Research in San Francisco.
The Army researchers working there tried for decades, but never produced a viable blood substitute. They couldn’t develop a safe product that replicates all the things our blood does for us, from coagulation to immune response.
While the institute was de-activated in 1995, Robert Winslow, a top researcher there, remained convinced that a product could at least perform one vital blood function — the delivery of oxygen to trauma victims’ organs and tissue.
Winslow dedicated his career to the effort, going so far as to climb Mount Everest to study the effects of oxygen deprivation on the body. In 1998, Winslow founded San Diego-based Sangart. The company subsequently developed the molecule MP4OX, which in clinical trials has shown the ability to deliver oxygen directly to capillaries without the side effects — particularly high blood pressure — that haunted previous blood substitutes.
If MP4OX gains approval for widespread use, Sangart CEO Brian O’Callaghan claims it will save thousands of lives annually. MP4OX could potentially take the place of blood transfusions in certain circumstances and allow paramedics to more quickly re-oxygenate trauma patients.
Winslow did not live to see his discovery come to full fruition — he died in February at the age of 67 from complications of an inoperable brain tumor. But O’Callaghan said the world could soon reap the benefits of Winslow’s work. MP4OX is now in clinical trials in Europe and the United States, with U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval possible within five years.