Red Cross trials frozen blood to deploy in conflict zones

For the first time, blood is being collected and frozen, in a trial by the Australian Red Cross, for the Defence Force to deploy in conflict zones.

The technology, which was pioneered in the Netherlands, dramatically extends the shelf life of blood components for up to 10 years.

The blood service said it was critical to have a constant supply in field hospitals, but the technique also has huge benefits for rural and remote communities.

In Australia one in three people need blood, but only one in 30 donate it.

And when it comes to storing blood, the shelf life can be as short as five days for platelets, six weeks for plasma and 12 months for red blood cells, which can make supplying fresh blood in conflict zones particularly challenging.

Professor of Military Medicine at the Australian Defence Force Joint Health Command, Michael Reade, said they were often forced to have a large inventory of blood.

The problem with that was the blood would expire at the end of 40 days, which often resulted in an "enormous amount of waste".

"Which is a big imposition to the Australian Blood Service," Professor Reade said.

"Or we go with a slightly smaller inventory than we might need, and therefore we don't have enough blood product in our deployed hospital."

Professor Reade said after two successful field trials in 2014 and 2015, the "frozen blood" would soon be deployed on missions to remote locations.

Type of 'anti-freeze' used to protect cells

The technology was first developed in the Netherlands in the 1990s, allowing blood components to be stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius.

The Australian project's lead researcher, Denese Marks, said the product could be stored safely at controlled temperatures over long distances, and quickly thawed without damaging the red blood cells.

"If you can imagine ice crystals forming outside a cell and pushing in, and I guess penetrating those cells, that can cause damage and the cells burst open when they're thawed," she said.

"So what we do is we add what you might call anti-freeze, and then we thaw them out.

"[And] at the end they're still cells that are living and able to do the job they are meant to do."

The Blood Service has collected a stockpile ready for use.

Wing Commander Leona Down, from the Australian Defence Force Joint Health Command, said they were planning to conduct some long-haul transport testing later on in the year.

"With the aim to be able to have the capability available for deployment in early 2018," she said.

Trials underway in rural, remote communities

The challenges in small defence hospitals are similar to those faced by rural and remote communities.

Professor Reade is now running a clinical trial in four Australian hospitals to test the effectiveness of freezing platelets, which helps with clotting.

"Even smaller hospital near our capital cities can't routinely stock platelets transfusion supply, because of the five-day shelf life," he said.

"So by freezing them and extending the shelf life to two years we are going to potentially be able to put platelets in hospitals that have never had them in an Australian civilian context, so that's enormously exciting."

He said if the pilot results proved successful, researchers hoped to apply for a grant for a much larger study.

"The reason we are both doing a clinical trial and implementing the technology at the same time within Defence is that the situations are very different," he said.

"In Defence, the question is, are frozen platelets better than nothing.

"But in a civilian context what we need to show is that they are at least as good, if not better, than conventional platelets, which big hospitals in Australia have routine access to."