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NIH Award to Support Earthworm Hemoglobin Research

Dr. Jacob Elmer

As a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University, Villanova University Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Jacob Elmer, PhD, began researching the potential of earthworm hemoglobin as a blood substitute. In December, his work earned him a three-year $254,000 Academic Research Enhancement Award (R15) from the National Institutes of Health. “Evaluation of Invertebrate Hemoglobins as Effective, Safe, and Ultra-Stable Blood Substitutes” establishes a valuable collaboration with researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and provides support for 12 undergraduate students to gain research experience in the field of drug discovery and development.

Dr. Elmer explains the purpose of his research: “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.”

Most previous blood substitutes have been based on purified human hemoglobin, since it is a protein that does not require refrigeration and it is responsible for the most vital function of human blood—oxygen transport. Unfortunately, clinical trials have revealed that blood substitutes based on human hemoglobin cause many different serious side effects, including heart attack and stroke. Dr. Elmer’s research on hamsters has shown that earthworms, specifically nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) and red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), can effectively transport oxygen without causing the side effects observed with human hemoglobin.

The NIH grant will support the next stage of Dr. Elmer’s research in which the efficacy and safety of these invertebrate hemoglobins will be investigated by transfusing them into mice. The effects of long term storage (>1-2 weeks) at high temperatures (70-140oF) on the earthworm hemoglobin will also be determined. Finally, the hemoglobins will be chemically modified to increase their stability and a freeze drying protocol will be developed to produce a blood substitute that is highly portable.

This is the second federal grant Dr. Elmer has received this academic year. In August, the National Science Foundation awarded him $300,000 for “Optimizing the Isolation, Transfection, and Expansion of Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR-T) Cells with Modified PES Membranes.”