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"Give blood, give life", says Jens Langejürgen. This slogan, used by the German Red Cross to encourage blood donations, has taken on a whole new meaning for this physicist with a doctorate in electrical engineering. Ever since he met start-up founder and CEO Marc Mazur for a cup of coffee in 2017, that is.
Sensors in biomedicine
It was just a casual break-time chat at the CUBEX41 start-up and competence centre on the campus of University Medical Centre Mannheim, where both have their offices and labs. Langejürgen was talking about his work as head of the Project Group for Automation in Medicine and Biotechnology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA). Mazur was telling him about his company PreviPharma, which specialises in advising companies that collect blood plasma, break it down into its constituent parts – a process known as fractionation – and sell it. Both quickly realised that Langejürgen’s experience in developing sensors for biomedical applications could help improve the preparation and utilisation of donor blood.
Proteins: a valuable raw material
Blood plasma is the liquid component of blood. This yellowish liquid is what remains after the cellular constituents have been removed from donated blood. Before it can be further processed, the plasma has to be frozen at minus 40 degrees Celsius so as to preserve its most valuable components: the proteins. Like fibrinogen and prothrombin – without which blood would not coagulate – other proteins in the body perform important functions in immune responses and repair processes. In blood plasma donations, the proteins are the valuable raw material that is needed to manufacture pharmaceuticals.
New medical applications
"We use temperature sensors made of fibre optics that are so small that they can be frozen together with the plasma", says Langejürgen. "Thanks to the low degree of heat conductivity, we can measure the temperature of the liquid plasma far more precisely than before, which allows us to better control the freezing and thawing process." This has two major advantages: for one thing, more of the substances are preserved – proteins react highly sensitively to temperature changes – meaning that the donor blood can be better utilised. And for another, the precise temperature control will in future allow certain proteins to be prepared for medical applications that previously could not be used because of their sensitivity to temperature.
Searching for solutions, also in Australia
As yet, the nano-thermometer, which features a nano-scale grid structure, is not quite ready for use in blood plasma processing. Originally developed for measuring temperatures in the tiniest blood vessels, the fibre-optic material of the sensor reacts with undesirable mechanical tensions to the low temperatures in the blood plasma. Langejürgen and Mazur are searching for a solution to this problem – and may have found what they are looking for in Australia.
Bringing scientists and companies together
The team is one of ten science-business tandems to be funded within the framework of InnoHealth Australia. The objective of this initiative of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is to bring together scientists and small and medium enterprises from the German and Australian healthcare sectors. In Melbourne, the partners from Mannheim publicised their innovation under the name Plasmore. "I enjoyed sharing and networking with our colleagues in Australia", says Langejürgen.
The goal: marketable products
There was a good chance of Plasmore and the other nine tandems from Germany finding interesting cooperation partners, as Australia boasts many innovative companies in the healthcare sector and the Australian government is currently stepping up its funding of their cooperative ventures with research. Almost one in three dollars of the state research budget was spent on this in 2017 – in the hope that this would turn scientific findings into marketable products. Sometimes, all that is needed to get the ball rolling is a cup of coffee.