Science for the wounded
The work of Dr. Armand Frappier
Blood and its substitutes
During World War II, one of the many medical challenges was to save as many soldiers as possible. Therefore large amounts of blood had to be stored nearby. However, life-saving procedures such as blood transfusion had their share of hindrances. In case of serious injuries, this technique enabled patients’ blood volume to be restored. However, in the 1940s, blood type matching was not yet fully understood and could result in some tragic transfusion failures, even amongst supposedly compatible patients. Back then, blood preservation was time-limited and depending on weather conditions, could only be stored no more than two weeks. Its transportation and storage being difficult, scientists saw a solution in blood substitutes, such as plasma or serum.
Unlike blood, plasma and serum did not cause any mismatch between donors and recipients, as they were deprived of blood cells, which could provoke immune reactions. Thus, in the late 1930s, committees were set up to study blood substitutes in Great Britain, in the United States and in Canada, where Dr. Best, from the University of Toronto took responsibility for the experiments. Plasma and serum were chosen over blood and began to be mass-produced. Besides, they used a new lyophilization technique to freeze-dry blood substitutes thanks to the combined actions of low temperature and vacuum. These products were lighter than whole blood and easier to carry to the battlefields. Moreover, plasma and serum could last for an extended period of time and could be put in storage through any environmental conditions. Once sterile water was added, they were ready to be injected into the patients. In the same way as blood did, they restored blood volume that was lost by the wounded and prevented traumatic shock.
The Connaught Medical Research Laboratories of the University of Toronto shared many objectives with the Institute of Microbiology. Founded in 1914, these laboratories aimed to foster research and education in preventive medicine and public health.
Following the Institut Pasteur of Paris as a role model, the Connaught Laboratories managed to finance their research and education programs by the production and sale of biological products, a method that also inspired the Institute of Microbiology.
Carrying on the research performed by Dr. C. H. Best of the University of Toronto, the Federal Government and the Canadian Red Cross Society helped the Connaught Laboratories with the production of dried human serum for the Canadian and Allied soldiers, as soon as January 1941. The blood donations required for the production of human serum never ceased to increase during the war, compelling the Connaught Laboratories to expand several times their war effort facilities and to acquire new equipment to boost productivity. Alongside the dried human serum production, they also prepared penicillin for the Canadian Army. Nevertheless, the Connaught Laboratories always maintained their production of other biological products, such as the typhoid-paratyphoid vaccine or insulin and they still conducted research in preventive medicine and public health.
Throughout the war, the Toronto laboratories carried out a high rate of productivity as shown by the figures of 1944. During that year, the Connaught Laboratories received 868,684 blood and serum donations to process. As a result, 184,436 bottles of dried human serum were shipped to Ottawa’s medical supplies or directly overseas, in Great Britain. After the war, they kept up their research and development activities by working, among other things, on blood fractionation and poliomyelitis treatment.