Blood is the stuff of life. Our bodies depend on it to deliver a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients to our cells. It fuels the heart, helps us regulate our temperature, and removes waste. We truly can’t live without it.
Most people are aware of how important blood donations are in providing transfusions for patients having surgeries or treatment for trauma. Some are even aware of cord blood donation which is a source of stem cells for cancer treatment. But did you know that donated blood is also used for critical research that could save countless lives? The Biological Products division of Bloodworks Northwest, a Seattle-based nonprofit, helps source the precious blood components to help medical and biotech research.
“We’ve been doing blood research for nearly 75 years,” says Jill Benson, Director of Biological Products at Bloodworks, a blood center serving more than 90 hospitals in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. “We’re creating special donor pools that provide our own researchers and other research organizations with blood components that help advance treatments and cures for specific diseases and conditions. It’s a shared resource, benefiting the whole research community.”
Saving Lives Through Blood Research
“Blood research is vital because it allows us to better understand diseases, and to find new lifesaving therapies for patients with malignant and non-malignant blood diseases,” explains Dr. Moritz Stolla, PhD, associate medical director at Bloodworks.
Whole blood contains three types of blood cells: red cells, white cells and platelets. These cells are suspended in plasma — the clear liquid component of blood. Red blood cells travel through the circulatory system moving oxygen and nutrients to all organs and tissues, while also removing waste. White blood cells are part of the immune system that combats harmful viruses and bacteria.
An average adult has about 10 pints of blood. A normal whole blood donation consists of about one pint. In healthy people red blood cells make up 40–50% percent of the overall blood volume, while white cells comprise only about 1%. This poses a major challenge to researchers studying diseases related to white blood cells.
That’s where Bloodworks comes in. The organization uses a minimal-risk blood-collection technique known as apheresis to isolate those invaluable components. Like ordinary whole blood donation, it is comfortable and virtually painless. Whole blood is taken out through tube and goes through a centrifuge that separates it into its component parts. The targeted cells are extracted, and the rest of the blood is returned back to the donor. It takes about three hours including screening, and donors are compensated for their time.
“When you donate blood and all we want is the white blood cells, we remove only those cells using apheresis, and return all the other components back to your body. That means the actual volume of oxygen-carrying blood extracted is minimal, but we are able to collect enough white cells that are needed for the research,” Benson said.
Everyone Can Give Towards Blood Research
“Research on healthy human subjects is necessary to study how novel therapies work in humans,” says Stolla.
“Researchers can learn a lot about how healthy cells work using blood from normal donors, but at some point there is a need to learn and understand how actual patients with specific conditions will react.”
In collaborating with researchers, Bloodworks needs patients with specific diseases, including various blood cancers, to donate their blood.
“A big part of what we do is find patients who are qualified and interested in helping find better treatments and cures for the conditions that are affecting them,” says Benson. “We must cast a wide net to identify these very special people, and are extremely grateful for their donations.”
Those who choose to donate aren’t just helping support research and treatment for their condition – they’re also supporting their community. The products that Bloodworks provides for research help support its not-for-profit mission. Bloodworks collects about 800 units every day from volunteer donors that is used by patients having lifesaving trauma care, surgeries, organ transplants, cancer treatment and therapy for bleeding disorders.
“Our goal is to provide the best quality healthcare for everyone in the community, which is directly connected to supporting research,” says Benson. “Our mission is saving lives and advancing medicine.”