Background: Blood loss leading to reduced oxygen-carrying capacity is usually treated with red blood cell transfusions. This study examined the hypothesis that a hemoglobin-based oxygen-carrying solution can serve as an initial alternative to red blood cell transfusion. Methods: In a randomized, double-blind efficacy trial of HBOC-201, a total of 98 patients undergoing cardiac surgery and requiring transfusion were randomly assigned to receive either red blood cell units or HBOC-201 (Hemopure; Biopure Corporation, Cambridge, Mass) for the first three postoperative transfusions. Patients were monitored before and after transfusion, at discharge, and at 3 to 4 weeks after the operation for subsequent red blood cell use, hemodynamics, and clinical laboratory parameters. Results: The use of HBOC-201 eliminated the need for red blood cell transfusions in 34% of cases (95% confidence interval 21%-49%). Patients in the HBOC group received a mean of 1.72 subsequent units of red blood cells; those who received red blood cells only received a mean of 2.19 subsequent units (P = .05). Hematocrit values were transiently lower in the HBOC group but were similar in the two groups at discharge and follow-up. Oxygen extraction was greater in the HBOC group (P = .05). Mean increases in blood pressure were greater in the HBOC group, but not significantly so. Conclusion: HBOC-201 may be an initial alternative to red blood cell transfusions for patients with moderate anemia after cardiac surgery. In a third of cases, HBOC-201 eliminated the need for red blood cell transfusion, although substantial doses were needed to produce this modest degree of blood conservation.