BEVERLY — Powdered blood plasma developed in Beverly could be the key to saving thousands of lives each year worldwide.
Velico Medical, a company of just a dozen employees, has developed a way to dry instead of freeze the lifesaving plasma, which will save about 1.5 million units of it from going to waste each year.
Like the best of ideas, it's a concept so simple, and so useful, that once you hear it, you have one of those "Why-didn't-I-think-of-that?" reactions.
"We think this could replace the way all (blood) plasma is stored; it has a lot of advantages over fresh-frozen plasma," said Tom Fitzgerald, the chief financial officer of Velico, a medical research firm at the Cummings Center.
Blood plasma — a yellowish liquid that's 90 percent water — along with red blood cells and platelets, is one of the three main components of human blood. It comprises about 55 percent of blood's volume and contains vital proteins and clotting factors. When you get in a serious accident and need blood, it's the plasma they pump into you to save your life. Contrary to popular belief, whole blood is hardly ever used in transfusions.
The nation's 123 regional blood centers process blood by separating it into its three components.
"Trauma is the No. 1 use for plasma. If you've lost blood, your blood pressure is down, you've lost coagulation factors," you need plasma, said Samira Johnson, the vice president of commercial operations at Velico.
The problem is there's not nearly enough plasma available because 20 percent of the total supply is wasted each year; in the military, a staggering 65 percent of blood plasma goes to waste. That's because blood plasma is extremely perishable. If it sits at room temperature for more than 20 or so hours, the proteins break down and it becomes useless.
Until now, the only effective way to store plasma was by flash-freezing it, which causes all sorts of problems. For one, it takes more than an hour to thaw a bag of plasma before you can use it. If there's been a serious accident and a person is losing pints of blood, an hour is way too long to wait. So hospitals have to guess each night how much plasma to defrost in order to have it ready for emergency situations; if too much is defrosted, the excess goes to waste; if they don't defrost enough, a patient could die.
Because it's so perishable, first responders can't use it and neither can military medics, who don't have time or proper facilities to defrost a bag of frozen plasma on the battlefield.
That's all about to change.
Just add water
The new storage method developed by Velico spray-dries plasma in a method similar to making evaporated milk. The plasma goes into a machine that takes out all the water, leaving a white powder. The resulting plasma powder can be stored at almost any temperature, and to turn it back into plasma, all you have to do is add water and shake. Instead of waiting up to 80 minutes to defrost a unit of plasma, the powdered version can be turned into the life-saving plasma in less than a minute.
"We in combat casualty care research are very excited by the fact that on the horizon we have potential dried blood products in the pipeline, to potentially extend the ability to give clotting factors before reaching a deployed hospital," Col. Lorne Blackborne, commander of the U.S. Army Institute for Surgical Research, told the Army News Service last year. Blackborne and other military officials met with Doug Clibourn, Velico's president and CEO, and other company officials at a conference in Florida this week to discuss the company's progress.
Congressman John Tierney visited the Velico offices last week to learn about the innovation and to discuss challenges the company has faced from federal regulatory agencies and with patenting their technology. Tierney said he was impressed with the technology and the potential for saving lives.
The Army used spray-dried plasma as early as World War II, but the method was discontinued the 1960s due to hepatitis contamination, according to the Army News Service. Early spray-dried plasmas were also not very effective, because the processes for making it did not maintain many of the vital proteins and blood factors found in natural plasma, said Fitzgerald, Velico's CFO. Preliminary tests conducted by Velico have found that its dried plasma, when mixed with water, has almost the exact same properties as blood plasma straight out of someone's body.
Velico now has a clunky prototype of its spray-dried plasma machine. Company engineers are working on making the machine faster — turning a unit of plasma into powder in about 20 minutes — sleeker and more cost-effective. It also must be designed so the plasma goes from liquid to powder without touching outside air.
"It's a fun design challenge to replace this with something that has a closed design and increased speed," said Mike Haley, the director of research and development at Velico.
The company hopes to have its plasma spray-dry machines approved and ready for the market by the end of 2013, an amazing feat, considering Velico began thinking about how to develop the dried plasma in late 2009.
"That is very quick in science time," Clibourn said.