- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has one of the largest programs in the nation to collect and sell stem cells, essential to research to fight deadly diseases.

But even though donors are paid up to $800, program directors say it can be difficult to find people willing to give, The Seattle Times reported (https://is.gd/KElGZM).

Dr. Shelly Heimfeld, a scientific director at the Hutch and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, runs the 16-year-old program. Last year, about 100 local donors provided billions of cells to more than 100 researchers from as far away as Germany and Singapore, he said.

“It doesn’t make money, but it does allow us to recover costs,” he added.

Blood stem cells were first identified in the early 1960s and launched a new era of research.

Like other cells, they can copy themselves, differentiate into specialized cells and undergo cell death. Those attributes make them critical research tools for scientists.

Investigators studying diseases as diverse as cancer and sickle-cell anemia have relied on the cells collected by the Seattle research center. The nonprofit Hutch program collects the cells and provides them to dozens of researchers across the country.

They’re also available from commercial producers at a higher cost. A single vial of CD34-positive cells, a type of stem cell vital for research, could cost $2,500 from a commercial provider. The Hutch program charges $500.

Peripheral blood stem cells, less-well-known cells that are in crucial demand for scientific research, are collected through a process called leukapheresis, which removes blood through one arm, separates out white blood cells, and returns the blood to the donor.

Before the donation, people are given shots of a protein that increases production of stem cells, which can then be removed from the blood.

Some people have reactions to the shots, which can cause joint aches and flu-like symptoms.

Donations that don’t require the shots are also accepted. Donors receive about $300 for those procedures, said Kristie Rollins, the project manager who oversees recruitment.

A single “mobilized” donation can yield 20 billion to 30?billion total cells, which contain about 100 million to 200 million stem cells, Heimfeld estimated. From those, scientists can request specific components, such as T cells and B cells, which play a key role in immunity. They might order a batch of 20 million or 40 million T cells, for instance, for use in an experiment.

Finding enough donors to supply the cells is a constant challenge, said Sharvari Joshi, who helps manage recruitment. For every successful donor, seven people have to be screened.

Donors must be between the ages of 18 and 70 and in good health, plus they must meet typical criteria for donating blood products. “Mobilized” donors can participate only three times in a lifetime, a cap put in place because there’s too little data about the effects of the GCSF shot. It appears safe, researchers said.

Ravi Prasad, 37, a Community Transit worker from Marysville, has donated peripheral blood stem cells twice, both times on his birthday, after learning about the opportunity at a backyard barbecue. Although he did develop flu-like symptoms from the shots, he said he welcomed the chance to share his cells.

“The money was nice, but I didn’t do it for the money,” he said.

As an immigrant from Fiji, he said he felt an obligation to give back to the community that welcomed him.

“If my cells can contribute to even the smallest part of the betterment of humankind, I think I’ve done a lot,” he said. “More than most people will ever do.”

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Information from: The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com

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