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French Sea Worms Set to Save the Lives of American Soldiers

The Britany-based French startup Hemarina has developed a blood substitute using sea worms. This new technology could be used to stabilize cerebral edemas resulting from explosions, which is the leading cause of death for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company’s French researchers have signed a research partnership with the U.S. Navy, and on February 8 they received the Creative Next Award which distinguishes French entrepreneurs in the United States.

Explosions on the battlefield cause three times more deaths than bullets. Some 65% of American military fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq are the result of bombs, mines or other explosive devices, compared with 22% caused by bullets. An explosion’s blast can lead to serious brain trauma such as hemorrhages and edemas which starve the brain of oxygen and result in the death of one in two patients before they arrive at a hospital. The technology developed by the French startup Hemarina could double the “golden hour,” the precious 60 minutes doctors have to reduce the edema before the consequences become irreversible.

Hemarina was founded in Morlaix (Finistère) by marine ecophysiology researcher Franck Zal, a former scientist at the CNRS. He studies how organisms adapt to their environments, and his work focuses on sea worms native to the French coasts. These specimens, known as lugworms (Arenicola marina in Latin, and buzuc in Breton) are also used extensively by the fishing community. This invertebrate lives in the sand on tide-washed beaches, and can breathe in both water and air thanks to its levels of hemoglobin.

“Oxygen is life,” says Franck Zal. Blood transports oxygen throughout the body and to its organs. In humans, oxygen is carried by hemoglobin molecules contained within red blood cells. In lugworms, however, hemoglobin dissolves in the blood. At high tide, the worm fills itself with oxygen found in seawater, and uses this stock to breathe at low tide. The worm’s hemoglobin does not contain the red blood cells that give human blood a type, but its structure is “almost the same” as human hemoglobin.

A universal, easily transportable blood substitute

Hemarina is currently working on developing a universal blood substitute using lugworm blood. “This molecule can be transfused into humans without worrying about the victim’s blood type,” says Franck Zal. This new development is a revolution. What’s more, a standard 450ml bag of human blood only lasts 42 days, after which point the red blood cells die, making it unusable. But the hemoglobin obtained from lugworms can be transformed into powder, stored and kept for up to two and a half years. Another groundbreaking innovation. This “strategic” discovery attracted the attention of the U.S. Naval Research Medical Center, located in Frederick, Maryland. The U.S. Navy is specialized in trauma treatment, and “asked us to design a way of oxygenating the brain of a wounded soldier for one hour,” says Franck Zal. The time-limit specified in the research corresponds to the “golden hour” and the average transportation time needed to reach a field hospital. The results from the laboratory were a success: brains of mice were kept alive for two and a half hours. After carrying out its own tests in 2015, the U.S. Navy published the same encouraging findings in the Journal of Neurotrauma. “The molecule works very well,” says Franck Zal.

While they wait for lugworm hemoglobin to become a standard item used by military doctors, the French company is continuing its research. As well as trauma treatment, the technology developed by Hemarina has many other possible applications, including blood transfusion (there is a need for an extra 100 million liters of blood across the world per year according to the World Health Organization), the treatment of infections caused by poor blood circulation, and the preservation of organs awaiting transplant. Clinical trials have already been conducted with 60 French patients awaiting a kidney transplant. The technology will be available to the public “in 2017,” says Franck Zal. “And the transfusion of lugworm hemoglobin should be possible in three or four years!”

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