LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A local young man makes a discovery that could save lives all over the world and even in space. The science breakthrough is remarkable, but this is also a story of how a struggling boy saw great success thinking differently, and how caring teachers helped him realize his potential.
The development of freeze-dried blood cells could extend the 42-day shelf life of a regular bag of blood by months to years. A brilliant discovery from a young man who struggled in school academically and socially.
“My grades were awful. I remember that very clearly, and the general sense of social isolation that can sort of come with Asperger’s Syndrome," Brett Janis said.
“I had to pull everything out of his backpack every day because there would be papers he didn’t even realize he had or things that were due," Dr. Janet Janis, Brett’s mother.
“My freshman year, my father passed away from pancreatic cancer, and that was very, very difficult. I had a really hard time coming back from it,” Brett said.
“That would be challenging for any person who was 14 years old. I don’t know how much was struggles with developmental and social things or just that, too. But he did have a lot of struggles,” Janis said.
Fast forward from boy in suburban Cary to graduate student at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Despite obstacles, Brett couldn’t stop his mind from reaching new destinations. As blood flowed to his brain, he thought about ways to maximize its use.
“When I think about the applications, which is the first thing your brain sort of goes to, the obvious one is the war fighter on the battlefield. Right now, up to 90 percent of fatal casualties that are considered preventable on the battlefield are caused by blood loss that would be preventable with blood transfusions," Brett said.
It’s a problem scientists have been trying to solve for more than six decades. But shortly after arriving at U of L, Brett was able to advance the research by making a critical connection — something his teachers at Northwest Suburban Cary-Grove High School saw him do early on and often.
“There was just something there. There was just a sense there that Brett was gonna do something. He’s so smart," said former teacher Rich Rasmussen.
“His questions were a little sometimes difficult for me to answer," said former science teacher Todd Huff, Cary-Grove HS science teacher:
“He could connect dots differently than certainly a lot of students his age," said former English and music teacher Rob Boncosky. "There were times he’d say things and I’d go, ‘Yeah, that’s new to me too. I never thought of it that way.’”
What Brett thought about was how to get a sugar that’s added to vaccines and used to keep glazed donuts fresh into red blood cells. He knew it would protect the blood during the freezing process -- if he could get the substance, called trehalose, inside the cells without destroying them. When he heard about a professor on campus who had success infusing cancer cell...
“I reached out to him and I said, ‘I’ve got this idea to load sugar into cells,’ and his first response was ‘I have no idea why you’d want to do that, but we’ll do it,'" Brett said.
It worked. For now, blood samples come from rats and pigs, but eventually human blood will be tested.
“The experiments we are running are preserving these red blood cells down here," Brett said.
The next step — add bubbles. The protective sugar is shaken at high speed. The result — these microbubbles — are a critical component in the process.
“Once we have the microbubbles, we’ll just add a small amount to the blood. That’s all we need," Brett said.
The blood and microbubbles flow through what looks like a simple box.
"This device will shoot ultrasound waves at these red blood cells and microbubbles," Brett said.
Under the ultrasound field, the bubbles create microjets, almost like tiny needles. Made of the sugar, they pierce the cells and carry the protectant into the cell. The hole heals quickly, trapping the sugar inside.
“That’s the protectant that allows it to freeze and then later dry and can be stored on the shelf we know for at least 18 months," Brett said.
In a matter of minutes, when the blood comes out of the unit, it’s ready for freezing.
“On the left it cannot survive freezing and drying, and on the right it can. If this discovery works as we hope and it all turns out very well, this could represent millions of lives every year being saved from very preventable conditions," Brett said.
The red blood cells solidify overnight, then go to the freeze drier. Just hours later, they emerge in powder form. Then, it's rehydrated with sterile water.
“Yep, just add water and shake it," Brett said. "That’s what is nice about this powder, it took about ten seconds to get completely rehydrated.”
Back in blood form — and unscathed by the process — the cells are ready to be reinfused into a needy patient, an accident victim, a soldier in war or a bleeding mother in a remote village. This substance can be transported anywhere, even to space.
"If it works then this could be helpful for the Mars mission," Brett said. "You feel this very strong sense of responsibility that all of the experiments you conduct, all the time you spend, you are weighing the potential benefits you offer to people versus, 'Do I go home an hour earlier and do the dishes right away, or do I stay late and then do the dishes later and lose some sleep?' Those are the sorts of things I deal with on a daily basis, and I think a lot of medical researchers do.”
So far, the rehydrated blood has been successfully used in rats with no health difference from those who got a regular blood infusion. The next step is to test it in pigs, then humans. That could take five to seven years. And even if it works, Brett wanted to remind everyone, people still need to donate blood to save lives.
Former University of Louisville graduate student Emily Murphy designed the special device used to expose the red blood cells and microbubbles to ultrasound waves.
University of Louisville student Mariah Priddy contributed significantly to the animal studies conducted as part of the research.