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February 07, 2017

Villanova professor sees earthworms as hope for human blood substitute

A Villanova University chemical engineering professor, seeking to find an alternative source for human blood in unconventional emergencies, believes he may have identified an underground candidate: earthworms.

Last December, Jacob Elmer received a three-year, $254,000 award from the National Institutes of Health to continue his previous work on earthworm hemoglobin, which he researched as a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University. The funding has enabled Elmer to establish an educational partnership with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to provide research experience in drug discovery and development.

To date, blood substitute research has primarily focused on purified human hemoglobin, a resilient protein whose function is to transport oxygen. While its practical benefit seemed to be its ability to maintain efficacy without refrigeration, clinical trials of human hemoglobin have produced serious side effects, including heart attack and stroke.

Elmer says his research on earthworm hemoglobin could address several medical needs.

“While transfusions of donated blood are the safest and most effective way to treat a patient with severe blood loss, there are many situations — military battlefields, remote areas, developing countries — in which blood is unavailable because it must be constantly refrigerated. My goal is to develop a ‘blood substitute’ that does not require refrigeration and can be deployed to save lives in these cases.”

Tests of earthworm, nightcrawler and red wiggler hemoglobin on hamsters have shown promise in transporting oxygen without the complications of human hemoglobin, Elmer said.

With the latest NIH award, the efficacy and safety of invertebrate hemoglobins will be tested on mice and the effects of long-term, high-temperature storage of earthworm hemoglobin will also be determined.

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