When the FDA introduced new rules for blood banks last September that every unit donated in the United States must now be tested for the Zika virus, this created a new challenge for U. S. blood centers. But it also created an opportunity for researchers that study infectious disease. By flagging blood donations infected with Zika, the nationwide testing helped the Blood Systems Research Institute to identify donors to enroll in research studies as potential test subjects. Results from one of those studies, which followed 50 Zika-infected blood donors for 24 weeks, were presented at the recent AABB conference in October.
The Blood Systems Research Institute is the central laboratory for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), which studies transfusion medicine in a study called REDS-III. Many organizations in the United States that collect and distribute blood take advantage of the samples at their disposal to conduct research studies. Most of these studies are focused on making sure the blood supply used to treat sick and injured people is safe and reliable, but the resulting data also gives scientists basic information about blood-born diseases like Zika, HIV, hepatitis, West Nile virus, and others.
Like a lot of blood science, these testing programs got their start in the late 1980's when HIV and AIDS were on the rise. That is when the NHLBI started the first iteration of the REDS program, initially called the Retrovirus Epidemiology Donor Study. “It did a lot of work to better understand HIV and better characterize the risks of infection,” says Simone Glynn, chief of the Blood Epidemiology and Clinical Therapeutics Branch at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The first run of the program spanned 13 years, from 1989 to 2001. REDS-II ran from 2004 to 2012. The current program, REDS-III, started in 2011.
In the 28 years since the start of REDS, blood donor research has helped tracked the epidemiology of various diseases in the general population by extrapolating out from the number of infected donors, says Glynn. It has helped scientists understand the way infections like HIV, hepatitis-C and West Nile Virus appear and progress in the body. Research through the program drew a connection between a virus called human T-lymphotropic virus type II and a progressive neurodegenerative disease in 1997, and tracked a 2014 Chikungunya virus outbreak in Puerto Rico.
For more on the Recipient Epidemiology and Donor Evaluation Study-III (REDS-III), go here.
(Partially reprinted from an article in Popular Science)