Blood and War: The Development of Oxypolygelatin, Part 1

An original container of 5% Oxypolygelatin in normal saline. Developed by Linus Pauling as part of his scientific war work research program, mid-1940s.

An original container of 5% Oxypolygelatin in normal saline.

On the basis of the information available to me, I have formed the opinion that oxypolygelatin solution…may well be a thoroughly satisfactory blood substitute, which could be manufactured cheaply in large quantities. It is probably superior to gelatin itself with respect to fluidity of solution, retention in blood stream, and osmotic pressure.”
Linus Pauling, March 14, 1944

In 1941 Linus Pauling began a limited program of study on bovine and human γ-globulin, a project stemming from his interest in the manufacture of antibodies. Pauling initiated experimentation with the preparation of antisera – blood sera containing defensive antibodies – and in the process quickly became an authority on the chemistry of human blood and hemoglobin. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent U.S. entrance into World War II, the federal government issued a national call for research with wartime applications. Thanks to his ongoing immunological work, Pauling was already a step ahead of his fellow scientists.

In April 1942, Pauling submitted a contract proposal to the Committee on Medical Research (CMR) of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Entitled “The Chemical Treatment of Protein Solutions in the Attempt to Find a Substitute for Human Serum for Transfusions,” the proposal outlined a plan to develop a gelatin-based substance which could be used as a plasma substitute. The project, if successful, would produce a synthetic material that would take the place of donated human blood plasma in transfusions, aiding Allied soldiers when America’s peacetime blood reserves ran low.

The Committee on Medical Research accepted Pauling’s proposal and within two weeks Pauling had assembled a group of researchers, including doctors J.B. Koepfli and Dan Campbell, an immunology expert. After securing materials from Edward Cohn and other American-based scientists, the team was ready to begin.

Linus Pauling to A.N. Richards, May 12, 1942

Linus Pauling to A.N. Richards, May 12, 1942

Linus Pauling to Edward Cohn, May 21, 1942, page 1.

Linus Pauling to Edward Cohn, May 21, 1942, page 1.

Linus Pauling to Edward Cohn, May 21, 1942, page 2.

Linus Pauling to Edward Cohn, May 21, 1942, page 2.

Pauling’s idea for a plasma substitute was not an unfamiliar one. Gelatin was already in use as a plasma replica during the late 1930s and early 1940s, but its viscosity and tendency to gel at room temperature made it a poor candidate. The U.S. military needed something quick and efficient that could be used in field hospitals with minimal preparation. The Caltech team, however, was not yet ready to discard gelatin as a potential candidate. Pauling hoped that, through chemical processes, he might be able to transform standard commercial-grade gelatin into a workable substance.

Between June 1942 and May 1944, Caltech received approximately $20,000 from the CMR in support of the project. During that time, Pauling and his team were able to successfully develop a possible plasma substitute through the polymerization and oxidation of gelatin.

the production of oxypolygelatin, July 23, 1943.

Notes by Linus Pauling re: the production of oxypolygelatin, July 23, 1943.

This substance, first referred to as polyoxy gelatin and eventually known as Oxypolygelatin, was superior to its unmodified counterpart in several ways. Because it was a liquid at room temperature, Oxypolygelatin did not require the same pre-injection heating that previous substitutes required, allowing it to be used quickly and without the help of heating implements. Furthermore, thanks to the creation of large chain-like molecules during the preparation process, oxypolygelatin was retained in the bloodstream for longer periods, allowing the patient’s body more time to manufacture natural plasma. Finally, where gelatin contained pyrogens (fever-causing substances), Oxypolygelatin did not – a property that was due to the addition of hydrogen peroxide, a substance capable of destroying pyrogens.

To a chemist’s eye, Oxypolygelatin appeared to be an acceptable substitute for human plasma. Unfortunately, Pauling knew his own tests were not enough to convince the CMR of the substance’s viability. What he really needed was a medical expert’s stamp of approval. Pauling called on Dr. Thomas Addis – a kidney expert whom history now credits with curing Pauling’s near-fatal case of glomerular nephritis – to analyze the effects of Oxypolygelatin on human organs. Addis accepted the challenge, bringing fellow researcher Dr. Jean Oliver to the project as well. Over the next two years, Addis and Oliver would subject Oxypolygelatin to a battery of tests, eventually confirming its potential as a plasma substitute.

Despite Pauling’s enthusiasm and Addis’ promising results, the CMR did not believe Oxypolygelatin to be sufficiently superior to the pre-existing gelatin substance and, in the spring of 1944, the committee refused Pauling’s request for a renewal of contract. Surprised by the committee’s decision, he submitted a second request, asking that his contract be renewed for the period of four months, with no additional funding from the OSRD. His request was granted but, due to empty coffers, no progress was made. Pauling applied again in June, this time requesting extra resources for the project. Again, he was denied.

Linus Pauling to A.N. Richards, June 14, 1944.

Linus Pauling to A.N. Richards, June 14, 1944.

The future of Oxypolygelatin research looked bleak, but Pauling and his team refused to abandon the project. Instead, they began making preparations for one final assault on the problem.

Please check back on Thursday for the conclusion to this series. In the meantime, for more information on Pauling’s Oxypolygelatin research, read his 1949 project report or view this 1974 letter regarding the development of Oxypolygelatin production in China.  For additional Pauling content, visit Linus Pauling: It’s in the Blood! or the Linus Pauling Online portal.

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6 Responses

  1. [...] levels in submarines using a magnetic field. Towards the war’s end, he was developing an artificial substitute for blood plasma, which received substantial attention from the press. He also spent a considerable amount of time [...]

  2. [...] of his largest projects, the creation of a blood plasma substitute, became fodder for a blog series that garnered significant interest from our readership. During the creation of the Oxypolygelatin [...]

  3. [...] his oxypolygelatin experiments, Pauling knew that one of the biggest issues with conventional gelatin-based plasma substitutes was [...]

  4. [...] began work on a war research project on the development of a plasma substitute eventually known as oxypolygelatin. This work was spawned from his private Caltech-based research into bovine gamma-globulin, possibly [...]

  5. [...] Pauling’s experimental work for the government came to an end with the closure of the oxypolygelatin program. Despite that, his association with the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) [...]

  6. [...] information on the creation and manufacture of oxypolygelatin can be found in our blog posts “Blood and War: The Development of Oxypolygelatin, Part 1,” and “Pauling on the Homefront: The Development of Oxypolygelatin, Part 2.” [...]

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