Finding new ways to manufacture red blood cells
This Waterloo grad is working to ensure the world has a safe and sustainable supply of blood
Every year, more than 4.5 million people need blood transfusions in Canada and the United States. That amounts to about 36,000 RBC units per day for the US alone. Transfusions are needed for trauma response, surgery and cancer care. The medical system relies on a complex system of blood donations to meet that need. Without a sufficient, reliable supply of safe blood, the health-care system comes into jeopardy.
That’s where Shane Kilpatrick (MASc ’17, MBET ’18) and his company, Membio, is working to make a difference. The Canadian startup is developing technology to manufacture fully functioning red blood cells at an industrial scale.
“Researchers have been manufacturing blood in the lab for the last few decades,” says Kilpatrick. “But they haven’t been able to produce blood cost effectively and at the scale that’s needed to offset the need for donations. Our end goal is to replace donation with manufactured blood.”
While getting enough donated blood is a significant issue, the variability of the supply poses even more challenges. For example, for patients who receive regular transfusions, they can develop alloantibodies to the mismatched antigens present on donor blood, which can cause adverse reactions.
“Your blood is as unique as you are as a person,” says Kilpatrick. “It becomes a big challenge for people who require recurring transfusion as they run into problems with variability. As patients receive ongoing transfusions, patients become alloimmunized and require blood matched on additional antigens, which is regularly more difficult and expensive to procure.”
Membio is concentrating on developing the bio-manufacturing processes that will allow them to produce blood cells in a lab on the scale that’s needed to meet the growing demand. The lab-produced blood will not only be pathogen and toxin free, it will also have a highly compatible profile, eliminating the issues that regular transfusion recipients experience.
Kilpatrick began thinking about red blood cell production while working on a completely unrelated research project in an oil patch. He noticed that the bio filters used to treat methane gas production were highly inefficient. He realized that our bodies solve much the same problem when it delivers oxygen to every cell in the body.
“I started thinking about replicating the circulation system outside of the body. I decided to pursue my MSc in chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo to help me learn how to develop the technology. It was in business school (MBET) that I realized the ultimate application of the technology was to create red blood cells in a way that would make it commercially viable.”
Once the idea was planted, Kilpatrick credits Velocity with providing the support he needed to get the company off the ground.
“Membio would not exist without the University of Waterloo and Velocity. Velocity provided access to research facilities I just didn’t have and Velocity Science, a partnership between Velocity and the Faculty of Science, helped with some of the consumables when I was getting started and didn't have any money. The experience of learning how to rapidly prototype and test ideas was invaluable, especially because we are trying to do things that have never been done before. You need to be able to learn from failures and test things out. It was critical to have that support.”
Once Membio became more established as a business, Kilpatrick and the company were accepted into IndieBio, a biotech incubator in San Francisco.
“IndieBio taught me that nothing is too bold or too big. Having incredibly smart people backing our ambitious vision has been a game-changer.”
Kilpatrick sees an opportunity for universities to foster the spirit of innovation and help students who show promise as entrepreneurs to succeed with the commercialization of their ideas.
While university support is critical, Kilpatrick would like to see the government play a larger role in helping Canadian companies like Membio develop the next generation of biotech.
“Biotechnology is a capital-intensive industry. In Canada, if we want to advance innovation in the health-care sector, government partners need to play a more active role. In the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) invests billions of dollars each year directly into companies that are doing the research. There’s no equivalent in Canada. With health research, for commercialization, you need capital upfront, which is more challenging in Canada’s more conservative approach to investing.”
For now, the focus remains squarely on their mission to ensure the world has a safe and sustainable supply of blood. While the pandemic may have slowed some of his plans, Kilpatrick anticipates opening Membio’s new facility and growing the team over the next 18 to 24 months.
“Although we have started this journey, the finish line is still down the road and we need help to get there. Hiring is a big focus for us in 2021 and we’re looking for brilliant scientists, engineers, and problem solvers to join our team and help us redefine what is possible.”