- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

While “well preserved” may be insulting in some circumstances, doctors depend on steady supplies of well-preserved blood to treat patients. A new discovery in that area may one day help patients stay better preserved.

In research published Friday in the journal Science, a team of researchers, led by Karin Hoffmeister of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, discovered a way to more than double the storage life of blood platelets by masking a specific sugar molecule on clusters of them.

Platelets cluster when they are cooled down to near-freezing temperatures thanks to certain receptors on their surface. They stay clumped together once warmed, which macrophages — specialized white blood cells which sweep up and destroy foreign objects — home in on. However, by masking the platelet’s receptor sugar with a different sugar molecule, one that is already found in cells, the researchers were able to increase their post-transfusion survival dramatically.

They worked primarily with mice, but their work also represents an important development for sugar-based therapies in humans. Sugars play a vast, complex role in cellular recognition and signaling. As Thomas Mader noted in a survey article in the July 2002 issue of Scientific American, “So ubiquitous are these molecules that cells appear to other cells and to the immune system as sugarcoated.” However, the 10 simple sugars common in mammals stack in many different ways, and so it has been difficult for researchers to decipher their structures and functions, and even more troublesome for them to design therapeutic applications.

Anyone who has gotten a cut is personally familiar with the work of platelets. They gather at the site of wounds to stem, and eventually stop, the flow of blood, assisted by several other cellular factors. However, they must be stored at room temperature, which allows dramatically increased bacterial growth. Platelets no longer work properly after about five days of storage, and their increased potential for infection means that they must be discarded five days after their collection.

That short shelf-life has meant that platelets are often in short supply at blood banks. In fact, the American Red Cross’ Washington region is facing a critical shortage of not only platelets, but also red blood cells and plasma. The region needs about 1,300 individuals to donate blood each day to meet the needs of the 80 hospitals and 10 trauma centers it supplies. Its blood supplies have been desperately low all summer, which has threatened the ability of hospitals to treat trauma victims and cancer patients among others.

While eligible individuals can give blood only once every 56 days, individuals donating only platelets can contribute once every two weeks. (Visit https://www.my-redcross.com, or call the donor line at 1-800-GIVE-LIFE.)

Dr. Hoffmeister’s group has possibly given caregivers the ability preserve platelets, although additional experiments will be required to determine if the treatment is safe and effective for humans. In the meantime, platelets are in critically short supply, and we urge our readers to give that precious gift.

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