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CBE students win NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Former paramedic Richard Hickey hopes his research on artificial blood will lead to saving more lives.Former paramedic Richard Hickey hopes his research on artificial blood will lead to saving more lives.Winning a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation is a distinct honor, as the process is highly competitive. Only 14% of all students who apply for a fellowship actually receive one.

Bucking the odds are Ohio State chemical engineering students in the William G. Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. In the last ten years, 18 Ohio State CBE students have won the fellowships, and this year two more have joined the list.

Richard Hickey, who works in Professor Andre Palmer's lab researching artificial blood, and Hannah Zierden*, who graduated from CBE in 2015 and is now studying at Johns Hopkins, both won full fellowships, and undergrads Kevin Ikeda in L.-S. Fan's lab, and Lagnajit Pattanaik in Nicholas Brunelli's lab, received honorable mentions.

"Johns Hopkins has been good to me," said Hannah Zierden about her NSF fellowship, "But I would never have gotten this far without Ohio State."

Choices and opportunities in life are often informed or predicated by past experiences, and this is also well demonstrated in the story of the other NSF fellowship winner, Richard Hickey. Richard's ten years as a paramedic led him to want to find a way of helping more people by developing a commercially viable blood substitute that could keep people in danger of bleeding to death alive until they can get to a hospital for a transfusion.

For people with traumatic injuries, time is a killer, since a patient can bleed to death in minutes. Working quickly and under constant pressure, paramedics make their best effort to stabilize patients using tools like cardiac defibrillators, ventilators and IV pumps. But sometimes, best efforts aren’t enough. 

“More times than I’d like to remember, we lost patients from blood loss before we could get them to a hospital,” said Richard Hickey, a former senior ambulance paramedic. “Sometimes,” he said, “you are limited by your tools.” 

One tool is conspicuously absent: the ability to do blood transfusions. Although volume expanders like saline help replace lost fluid volume, paramedics can’t do transfusions due to the pre-testing required and inability to keep stores of blood on hand.

Richard found it difficult to lose patients, especially due to blood loss, which seemed preventable to him. But this frustration is what ultimately led him to Ohio State – and a possible solution.

“One day, I happened to read a paragraph in a paramedic textbook that referred to artificial HBOCs – hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers -- which is what we commonly refer to as ‘artificial blood.’ I thought, ‘Why don’t I have that tool already?” he recalled.

HBOCs, a class of red blood cell (RBC) substitute, possess circulation half-lives ranging from 24-48 hours and can potentially be used as a short-term RBC replacement until a patient can get a blood transfusion at a hospital. Designed to transport oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the body, they can be used by people of any blood type; they are free of unidentified pathogens that could be unwittingly passed on by blood donors; and they are stable at ambient temperatures up to several years, whereas human RBCs must be discarded after 42 days of refrigerated storage.

The potential benefits of HBOCs were clear. Out of curiosity, Richard began reading science and academic journals and then started taking classes.

“Initially, I was just learning. But as I progressed in my studies, I realized that I could actually make a contribution to those things that I had so far only read about. I was interested in the practical outcome of having better treatments available for ambulances, hospitals, and even battlefields,” he said.

After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Richard looked at graduate programs in medicine, physiology, and bioengineering before settling on chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State.

“As a leader in blood substitute research, Ohio State intrigued me. Chemical engineering also examines feasibility, cost, and scale, which are key to success. It doesn’t matter if you have a good product if you can’t produce and market it effectively,” he said.  

But it takes time to develop a new product. “Blood substitute research has been around since the 1990s,” Richard said. “Initially, industry tried to develop the materials, but they ignored clinical warning signs, and the products failed. Since then, researchers have made real progress. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we could ultimately succeed.”

One challenge with previous commercial HBOCs is that their small size allowed them to penetrate other bodily tissues, causing hypertension and oxidative tissue injury. Richard’s research examines larger-size hemoglobin molecules from other species, such as the earthworm, which could help prevent this.

“It is humbling to have someone with Richard’s background seek out the lab to do this type of research,” said Richard’s advisor, Andre Palmer. “His life experiences help to inform his approach as an outstanding researcher.”

Richard anticipates completing his Ph.D. in 2021 and hopes to work as a post-doc or researcher in a federal laboratory. “I’d also love to work at NASA some day,” he mused. “The concept of humans in space, pushing boundaries, is so fascinating.” 

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Editor's note: *Hannah Zierden works with Dr. Laura Ensign (another OSU chemical engineering alumna) and Dr. Justin Hanes in the Center for Nanomedicine at Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on drug delivery for the prevention and characterization of preterm birth.

For a list and story about all Ohio State 2017 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship winners in the College of Engineering, click here.