This may seem like something out of a science fiction movie: researchers have designed microparticles that can be injected directly into the bloodstream to quickly oxygenate your body, even if you can’t breatheanymore. It’s one of the best medical breakthroughs in recent years, and one that could save millions of lives every year.
The invention, developed by a team at Boston Children’s Hospital, will allow medical teams to keep patients alive and well for 15 to 30 minutes despite major respiratory failure. This is enough time for doctors and emergency personnel to act without risking a heart attack or permanent brain injuries in the patient.
The solution has already been successfully tested on animals under critical lung failure. When the doctors injected this liquid into the patient’s veins, it restored oxygen in their blood to near-normal levels, granting them those precious additional minutes of life.
Particles of fat and oxygen
The particles are composed of oxygen gas pocketed in a layer of lipids, a natural molecule that usually stores energy or serves as a component to cell membranes. Lipids can be waxes, some vitamins, monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides, phospholipids, or—as in this case—fats.
These fatty oxygen particles are about two to four micrometers in size. They are suspended in a liquid solution that can be easily carried and used by paramedics, emergency crews and intensive care personnel. This seemingly magic elixir carries “three to four times the oxygen content of our own red blood cells.”
Similar solutions have failed in the past because they caused gas embolism, rather than oxygenating the cells. According to John Kheir, MD at the Department of Cardiology at Boston Children’s Hospital, they solved the problem by using deformable particles, rather than bubbles:
We have engineered around this problem by packaging the gas into small, deformable particles. They dramatically increase the surface area for gas exchange and are able to squeeze through capillaries where free gas would get stuck.
Kheir had the idea of an injected oxygen solution started after he had to treat a little girl in 2006. Because of a lung hemorrhage caused by pneumonia, the girl sustained severe brain injuries which, ultimately, lead to her death before the medical team could place her in a heart-lung machine.
Soon after, Kheir assembled a team of chemical engineers, particle scientists, and medical doctors to work on this idea, which had promising results from the very beginning: