BWH scientists developed the small bioreactor above, which can make fully functional human platelets.

BWH scientists developed the small bioreactor (above), which can make fully functional human platelets.

More than 2.17 million platelet units from donors are transfused yearly in the U.S. to treat patients undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplantation and surgery, as well as for those needing blood transfusions following a major trauma. But increasing demand, a limited shelf-life and risk of contamination, rejection and infection have made blood platelet shortages common.

What if we could simply make blood platelets on-demand? Jonathan Thon, PhD, and Joseph Italiano, Jr., PhD, BWH Division of Hematology, and their team have developed a device called a bioreactor that can do just that, creating fully functional human platelets. According to Thon and Italiano, the bioreactor is a major biomedical breakthrough that will help address blood transfusion needs worldwide.

“The ability to generate an alternative source of functional human platelets with virtually no disease transmission represents a paradigm shift in how we collect platelets that may allow us to meet the growing need for blood transfusions,” said Thon.

Blood cells, such as platelets, are made in bone marrow. The bioreactor is able to mirror the major characteristics of bone marrow, such as stiffness, composition and blood flow stability. By essentially mimicking these characteristics, the bioreactor is able to make fully functioning human platelets. Applying high blood flow forces in the bioreactor can trigger the device to increase platelet initiation from 10 percent to 90 percent.

“Being able to develop a device that successfully models bone marrow represents a crucial bridge connecting our understanding of the physiological triggers of platelet formation to support drug development and increase platelet production,” said Italiano.

The researchers hope to begin testing the device in human clinical trials in 2017.