How a local scientist keeps blood supply safe and flowing

CHICAGO — Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs a unit of blood. WGN News takes a closer look at how scientists are working to keep the blood supply safe and flowing.

John R. Hackett, Jr., is a virus hunter. He’s part of an Abbott global surveillance program that looks for rare strains of known viruses, but also hopes to detect new ones well before they invade the blood supply.

“Abbott tests are used to screen more than 60 percent of the world’s blood supply,” Hackett said.

The vials are loaded by the dozens. Blood samples are run through the Prism, an instrument designed by healthcare company Abbott to screen for viruses and disease.

The test specimens are kept in freezers and come from all over the world.

Inside each box are 96 tubes, each filled with a blood sample that contains hepatitis or HIV. The specimens are used to run quality control tests to make sure the machines, which are in use at screening facilities around the world, are working properly to identify potentially harmful infections.

But they also help scientists detect new threats.

“HIV and hepatitis viruses, especially B and C, evolve and change, mutate very rapidly,” Hackett said. “We’re advancing technology to actually be able to look for things that we may not even know are present in a sample, so new ways of analyzing specimens not only for infectious agents we’re aware of but to identify potentially new ones.”

It’s work the company has done for decades. Think of the HIV epidemic.

“Abbott created the first FDA-approved test to detect antibodies to human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, back in 1985. That was a huge milestone in our ability to detect infections,” Hackett said. “And to put this in perspective, if you needed a blood unit and lived in San Francisco in 1983, you had a one-in-90 chance of getting a unit of blood that was infected with HIV. And we didn’t even know it was a virus at that point.”

That’s why the research done in the lab is critical. But for Hackett, his story stretches beyond the bench. Blood is his life’s work and was once his lifeline.

“My family and I were returning from a trip and were in a very serious car accident,” he said. “I was airlifted to a hospital. I had multiple surgeries requiring multiple units of blood to be transfused. I’m alive today thanks to someone who donated blood.”

But the most consistent donors are aging, putting the global supply at risk of diminishing.

“Sixty percent of blood donations are from individuals who are 40 years old or older," Hackett said. "And three quarters of those are from individuals who are 50 years old or older. So, what’s being seen is subsequent generations, we’re seeing fewer and fewer donors. This is an extraordinary opportunity to do something that could ultimately save a life. Ask yourself: How many things could most of us do that have that potential?”

Abbott developed the Be the 1 program to encourage more young adults to donate blood. You can learn more at www.bethe1donor.com.