New oxygen microparticle technology breakthrough: Man, what would Lance Armstrong have given for this?

by Michael Pecaut, PhD

A spectacular story was making the rounds on Facebook yesterday: Scientists Invent Oxygen Particle That If Injected, Allows You To Live Without Breathing.

A team of scientists at the Boston Children’s Hospital have invented what is being considered one the greatest medical breakthroughs in recent years. They have designed a microparticle that can be injected into a person’s bloodstream that can quickly oxygenate their blood. This will even work if the ability to breathe has been restricted, or even cut off entirely.

This finding has the potential to save millions of lives every year. The microparticles can keep an object alive for up to 30 min after respiratory failure. This is accomplished through an injection into the patients’ veins. Once injected, the microparticles can oxygenate the blood to near normal levels. This has countless potential uses as it allows life to continue when oxygen is needed but unavailable. For medical personnel, this is just enough time to avoid risking a heart attack or permanent brain injury when oxygen is restricted or cut off to patients.

When I first read the article, my first thought wasn’t about how cool it was. I didn’t think about how doctors could use it to save soldiers who’d been shot through the lungs. Or that this plus a bath of glucose, amino acids and salts tossed into a fish tank would be one step away from Futurama’s Head-in-a-Jar. Or that this will more than likely lead to cyborgs since all a body is really useful for is to eat, breath, and crap (sex will eventually become boring once we’re all hooked directly into teh interwebs, complete with dopamine, serotonin and epinephrine pumps).

No, my first thought was, “I bet this will be shown to cause cancer.” According to the article, these microparticles are essentially “oxygen gas pocketed in a layer of lipids.” That immediately sent off warning bells. Under the right conditions, once you get enough reactive oxygen near the right kinds of lipids, you can potentially cause a chain reaction, creating more and more reactive oxygen. Which leads to DNA damage. Which leads to cancer. It’s also, coincidentally, what causes “aging” and has been linked to many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

I suppose I could be excused for focusing on the dystopian potential here. I’m currently working on a grant proposal to NASA that links reactive oxygen species with changes in lipid metabolism and, ultimately, neurodenerative disease. So my mind has been a bit preoccupied and this article landed pretty close to what I was already thinking about. I’m sure the researchers working with this stuff are well aware of this problem and are already considering workarounds. I hope so, anyway.

My second thought was even more fun: I bet athletes will start abusing it. They’re already breathing oxygen on the sidelines. A microsecond later, “blood doping” popped into my head.

I ran track in high school and college. I ran anything between 400m to a 5K, but I was best at middle distance: 800m and 1600m. Essentially, very long sprints. And I’ve definitely been in situations when a shot of oxygen to the muscles would have done me a hell of a lot of good. At my peak, I lived in Hawaii. Sea level. Then I decided I needed to go to college where there was no air: Boulder, Colorado. My first run, a day or so after I stepped off the plane, just about killed me. What I thought was about six miles had been barely half that. And this was just a few months after winning two events at the state track meet: the 1600m and 800m. I’m not gonna lie. Looking back on that experience, I could totally see the allure of injecting oxygen right into my muscles.

And that’s just me, a nobody who made it to the national stage once (Kinney Cross Country Nationals) and choked.

Liestrong - Lance ArmstrongIf Lance Armstrong had this technology, he’d probably STILL be winning the Tour de France. Unless they are purposely doing something to make the lipids traceable, this stuff will be damned near impossible to test for. At the very least, it would probably require a very expensive, very high end mass spectrometer. (There are already a couple of companies that will characterize changes in lipid metabolism for you…at $2-4K a pop…but hell if I know what they’d be looking for. For this molecule to work, the lipids they’re using have to be something the body already makes and knows how to process). At worst, some black market biochemist will figure out how to make it without a tracer.

Think about Michael Phelps. Breathing slows you down when you’re swimming. And like the article says, this stuff makes it so you don’t actually have to breath. Records will fall the instant a world-class swimmer gets his/her hands on this microparticle.

Let me say it now. This wonderful new life-saving technology WILL BE USED by athletes.

Is it abuse? Honestly, the more I think about it, the less sure I am. It’s just oxygen, right?

There’s a common practice among distance runners and other endurance athletes: Train at sea level, but live at altitude. At sea level, you can push your body to the limit without having to worry about oxygen. There will always be enough. At altitude, the partial pressure of oxygen is lower. So you can’t work out nearly has hard or as long as you could at sea level. Given enough time at altitude, your body partially compensates by naturally generating more red blood cells and, more importantly, hemoglobin. More hemoglobin means more oxygen to your muscles. It’s never enough to match the energy you can generate at sea level, but it’s enough to give you a boost if you decide to drive down to the beach for a run.

What the team at Boston Children’s Hospital has done makes all that unnecessary. Just inject immediately before your run and you’re good to go.

Incidentally, this is essentially where the blood doping concept originated. But this stuff doesn’t involve any of the artificial or enhanced biochemistry.

Let’s keep our eyes open. When distance records start tumbling at unprecedented rates, remember – you read it here first.


A long-time friend of Scholars & Rogues, Dr. Michael Pecaut is an Associate Research Professor specializing in space-based immunology in the Department of Basic Sciences, Division of Radiation Research at Loma Linda University. Over the past 15 years he has designed and assisted in the development and execution of experiments across 12 separate space shuttle missions. His work has included the characterization of plant, bacterial and rodent model systems across a wide variety of space-related environments including microgravity (Space Shuttle and MIR), hypergravity (Ames 24 ft diameter centrifuge), parabolic fight (KC-135), and radiation (LLU Proton Treatment Center & Brookhaven’s NASA Space Radiation Laboratory). Readers are invited to check out his Mice in Space Facebook page.

Categories: Science/Technology, Sports

12 replies »

  1. Athletes already court trouble with other PEDs: why not oxygen? The free-diving implications are also tantalizing. Fascinating post; deserves to be widely read.

  2. The research is certainly real. The blurb that was going around on FB yesterday didn’t give many details, but I’m pretty sure this is the article it was citing. Our library doesn’t seem to have access to the whole thing, but I’m sure if you wrote the PI, they’d be more than happy to send you the whole thing.

  3. Dr Pecaut, what would happen to hemoglobin if the gas exchange process were shunted to a one way street? Can it flow through the alveoli full of CO2,, drop the freight and return empty handed to the cells to gather more? Hypercapnia would seem likely and gas embolism for a deep diver almost certain.

  4. Just from your question, I’m guessing you know more about this than I do. But to be honest, I started wondering about decompression sickness myself. I bet Russ was, too. You might not want to inject this stuff while climbing Mt. Everest or prepping for an EVA outside the ISS. I just don’t enough about the lipid packaging.

    • Thanks for the compliment Doc but I’m just a mechanic at heart and a peddler by trade who takes an interest in imagineering both processes and disruption of processes.

      I believe it’s Dr John N Kheir doing the research. Here are links to some of his abstracts

      In 2008 he was getting 15 minutes out of rabbits with obstructed airways and now 30 minutes, and I’m assuming it’s CO2 buildup that’s the wall. The lipids surround the oxygen on a molecular level and replace hemoglobin in the 02 ingress to cells but there’s no corresponding CO2 egress

      If the object was both breathing and taking lipid oxygenation as in the athlete example perhaps the CO2 would be expelled but then hypercapnia would be replaced by hyperoxia. This tech has a one way membrane exchange going on where to do the things we’d all like to do it needs to be two way.

      Like walking around on Mars au naturel, or keeping organ donor cadavers viable until convenient harvest, or even free diving to the bottom of the the Mariana Trench.

      Shoot me down if you see holes, I’d like to hear more of your views on it.

      • No, I suspect you hit on one of the problems they’re having. I’m no biochemist by any stretch of the imagination (at best, i’m an engineer pretending to be a “radio-immunologist”). But in the absence of any sort of transport protein like hemoglobin (IIRC, hemoglobin is mostly just a more efficient mechanism for moving LOTS of oxygen), it seems like there are only two other options for getting the oxygen into a cell. Either the lipids act as a sort of gas exchange membrane and everything works as a function of partial pressure. Or the lipid balls are being endocytosed. I suspect the latter is waaaay to energy dependent to be work effectively. The former probably how it’s working. I’m guessing what this stuff does is temporarily amps up the partial pressure inside the capillaries so gas exchange can happen.

        If you can exhale, you should be fine. RBCs (and the hemoglobin in them) will still be there to pick up the disolved CO2. But you’re right. If you can’t exhale for some reason (like in the soldier example with collapsed lungs), eventually the CO2 is going to have to go somewhere. Maybe they could create another batch of lipid balls with CO2 scrubbers? Haha. Of course, that would make it more “traceable.”

        I suspect their bigger problem is the stability of the lipid balls. Seems like they’d be used up really quickly. Either they’d get cleared from the blood by the liver or you’d have a bunch of fat floating around. Neither prospect sounds very fun. Ha.

        I wasn’t able to look at the actual articles from the abstracts you linked. I’ll see if I can get access at work tomorrow. I work at a university and some of those may be available to me. No promises, tho. I have a grant deadline in less than three weeks. 🙂

        • I was just thinking that it WOULD be a weird feeling… Being under water, feeling your lungs fill up with CO2. But then I realized you were right again. Even if you COULD exhale, there’s no reason for the CO2 to leave the blood in the lungs. There’s no differential. I guess you could the lipid balls directly into the lungs. Nah, they will probably have to invite lipid ball scrubbers to make it last long enough to be useful outside the clinic unless they can build that into the lipids themselves. Or go full cyborg:

  5. Oh! I like the iLung Doc, combine it with an O2 glow discharge extraction system for CO2 on Mars or an electrolysis circuit for disassembling H2O underwater and now we’re talking some cool-tech multi-environment sports gear…and of course we’ll need a few other little knick-knacks like a high density micro scale power source to keep the system juiced.

    Pulling my head back from the clouds I suspect that in the long term, soft squishy oh so fragile humans will remain on Earth or at most engage in limited forays into our local system and it will be AI enabled androids acting as our minions who go forth and multiply into the harsh environments of the stars and beyond. Not the worst fate at all, Mankind the toolmakers replicating themselves in their own image for perpetuity.

    Nonetheless, right here right now an extended capacity bio-mechanical closed circuit re-breather would be a handy little gadget to have in our tool closet. Thank you for the most enjoyable brain food sir, it was a pleasure reading you!

  6. We’re getting carried away by our imagination.
    According to this abstract, one ml. of suspension carries less than one ml O2.
    Adults at rest require 200 ml O2/minute. A trained athlete at least 5 times as much during effort. Imagine getting a liter intravenously for every minute of exertion! Blood free, oxygen carrying emulsions have been around a long time.
    Nothing dramatically new here, at least not for athletes.