Dr. Sherrill Slichter reflects on 45 years of research at BloodworksNW

March 31, 2015 at 2:45 pm

SlichterMany advancements in platelet transfusion would not be possible without Dr. Sherrill Slichter’s 45 years of research at Bloodworks Northwest.

Growing up in Wenatchee, WA, Dr. Slichter had an interest in science in a time where attitudes towards women’s abilities were much different than they are today.

When I was in high school, I took math and physics and chemistry, and our class advisor was the biology teacher in high school and she was sure I was going to flunk out, so I had to take my class card home every semester and have my parents sign it.

She majored in math at Washington State University, but soon realized it wasn’t for her. As a second semester junior, she started taking pre-med classes, and went to medical school as one of five women in a class of 100.

On the first day of medical school, I was sitting at the lunch counter in a pharmacy across the street from the medical school when one of my fellow classmates, who I didn’t know because it was the first day, looked over to me and said, ‘do you understand that you’re taking the place of somebody who could use this education? Raise a family.’

I guess I survived by saying to myself, ‘I can do what you can do, regardless of my gender.’

Dr. Slichter initially wanted to focus on patient care instead of research, but an experience with a woman with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a disease of the red blood cells that causes kidney failure, made her change her mind. The patient, the wife of an army private, was dying of renal failure, but there was only one dialysis machine at the University of Washington hospital and it was in use. The physician in charge refused to treat her because of what Dr. Slichter suspected to be discrimination, and the woman died.

There was a professor in the division of hematology, a physician named Laurie Harker — he was interested in clotting and bleeding disorders — so I went up to Laurie and I said, ‘are you doing any work on hemolytic uremic syndrome?’

Dr. Slichter came to BloodworksNW in 1970 to develop a coagulation laboratory, and her focus has been on platelets.

We didn’t have platelets as a separate transfusion product at [BloodworksNW], so I started research studies trying to determine how to, first of all, spin the blood to separate the blood into its components: platelets, plasma, red cells.

And then once we had platelets for transfusion, we had to figure out how to store them, so I’m still working on improving methods and extending the storage time of platelets.

Once we had platelets to give, patients started to develop antibodies against the donor platelets, so we’ve been working on methods to modify platelets prior to transfusion to prevent them from being recognized as foreign by patients and rejecting them.

Dr. Slichter determined early on that platelets store better at room temperature rather than in the cold, and must be agitated during storage. A colleague says, “The platelet storage system is sort of like her — she doesn’t like to sit still.”

These advancements helped improve the prognosis for cancer patients, and made bone marrow transplantation possible.

Dr. Slichter’s original goal of extending the storage and accessibility of platelets remains. She’s currently working with the U.S. Army on freezing and freeze-drying platelets to provide for situations where fresh platelets are not feasible. Though she initially extended the life of platelets from three to five to seven days, her lab studies now show that platelets can survive for 13 days using special storage conditions. The issue is then reducing pathogens in the platelet product, but she’s working on it.

Our long-term goal is to get extended-stored, pathogen-reduced non-immunogenic platelets, and I think we’re very close potentially in the next 5-10 years to achieving that goal.

A lot has changed in attitude from when Dr. Slichter started.

There are more women medical students than men, so that’s all for good.

One thing that hasn’t changed is a commitment to advancing technology by investing in the next generation of researchers.

We don’t just draw blood, store blood and transfuse blood with established guidelines – we’re very interested in training young people.