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MSOE students try to develop synthetic blood substitute in ambitious project

Guy Boulton , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 1:51 p.m. CT May 30, 2017

For the past four years, successive teams of seniors at the Milwaukee School of Engineering have worked on a research project not short on ambition: developing a synthetic blood substitute that can transport oxygen in the body.

The project understandably may seem quixotic — or, at the least, maybe a little too ambitious. At least one multibillion-dollar corporation and several well-funded startups have failed in similar pursuits.

And the MSOE students are, after all, undergraduates, not post-docs with PhDs working at a large research university.

But each MSOE team — in some years, there have been more than one — working with Wujie Zhang, an assistant professor of biomolecular engineering, for their required senior project has overcome the next challenge of the ultimate quest.

The students also have learned the value of patience and persistence in research.

 “That is not to say it didn’t come without a fight,” said Kellen O’Connell, one of the five students on this year’s team. “I definitely had my doubts along the way.”

 The research project was the outgrowth of a serendipitous discovery by Zhang and Jung Lee, also an assistant professor at the school, while working on a way to encapsulate a drug for colon cancer in natural polymers derived from crab shells and orange peels.

 They discovered that the substance took the biconcave shape — having a surface that curves inward on the top and bottom — of red blood cells.

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