The use of a common blood substitute to resuscitate critically ill patients with low blood pressure can actually cause more harm than good, a research team based in Winnipeg has found.

The study found higher mortality rates in patients who receive a corn-based hydroxyethyl starch solution, a common blood volume expander, compared to other products.


Dr. Ryan Zarychanski of the University of Manitoba's George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation led the team that looked into the use of corn-based hydroxyethyl starch solutions as a substitute for human blood. (University of Manitoba)

Led by Dr. Ryan Zarychanski of the University of Manitoba, the research team is having its findings published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"It's used around the world in emergency rooms, intensive care units and surgical suites," Zarychanski said in a short video produced by the university.

"Physicians like myself have often suspected the product may be associated with harm, but no study was adequately … designed to test this hypothesis."

By examining 38 clinical trials involving 10,880 patients around the world, the researchers say the risks of kidney failure and mortality were higher in patients who received hydroxyethyl starch solutions.

Zarychanski said the medical community has been trying to find alternatives to human blood products, but hydroxyethyl starch solutions have been used without studies being properly conducted to assess how those products affect kidney function.

"We looked at all the studies conducted throughout the world to date on this product and we found clear evidence that in patients who received this product, compared to patients who received other resuscitation fluids, those patients have a greater chance of dying and having acute renal failure," he said.

Dr. Ahmed Abou-Setta, a member of the research team, says the findings will affect decisions being made by doctors and hospital staff around the world.

"Often we believe something is safe and later that's proven to be not as safe as we originally thought," Abou-Setta told CBC News in an interview.

"I think that's part of medicine … always to be able to change your practice as new evidence emerges."