It seems like no matter how many blood drives we have, hospitals never have enough blood to go around. To solve this problem, scientists have been trying to create synthetic blood for decades. And since we keep on having blood drives, you can probably guess that scientists still haven’t succeeded. But at least we get cookies when they stick us, eh?
In episode 2 of Frankenstein MD, Victoria introduces some of the basic principles behind the engineering of synthetic blood products. Much like we’ve done to create everything from insulin to diesel fuel, scientists have employed recombinant DNA technology to create human hemoglobin within E. coli bacteria, the microscopic workhorses of biotechnology.
I gotta say, I love how casually we tend to discuss recombinant DNA these days, as if it’s as simple as making toast. While it’s a fairly routine molecular biology procedure, it’s important to remember that we are cutting and splicing the DNA fabric of life like biological wizards, and that’s amazing.
First, the gene for hemoglobin is inserted into the bacterial cell. Or really, it’s genes, plural, since human hemoglobin is a tetramer, a macromolecule made up of two pairs of related, but slightly different globin molecules. The bacteria make oodles of human protein, we pop ‘em open, purify it, and reconstitute the oxygen-carrying portion of human blood. Simple, right?
Problem is, bacteria process their proteins slightly differently than we do, modifying them with little molecular tags that our bodies recognize as foreign. Our immune system mounts a response, which can be deadly. SO far recombinant blood substitutes are still pretty toxic (although work continues).
Some scientists are trying to get around our body’s tendency to reject recombinant blood by developing completely synthetic oxygen carrier molecules that don’t need to be biologically synthesized by bacteria. This science is promising, and word on the science street is that it is ready to be put in real patients!
Beyond all that sciencey mumbo-jumbo, this episode sees Victoria come face-to-face with the challenges of being a female scientist, whether it’s having to try just that little bit harder to get noticed or treated fairly by male scientists and administrators (like Dr. Krempe), or carrying the burden of family needs and professional desires, a choice that no female scientists should have to make. It seems like Dr. Waldman is on her side, and treats her with honest respect, though.
I have a feeling it’s not the last time Victoria will be facing these issues…