The following is excerpted from BLOOD: AN EPIC HISTORY OF MEDICINE AND COMMERCE (ISBN 0-688-17649-6) by Douglas Starr (pgs. 207-212). The book is available on Amazon.com.
Chapter 12: Bad Blood
The blood business boomed in the 1960s and '70s. The enterprise had become so
decentralized by now that no one knew how much was collected, although most
estimates put it well above six million pints a year in the U.S. alone, easily
surpassing peak collections during the war. The liquid's uses multiplied as
well, as Cohn's dream of component therapy approached realization. Rather than
using whole-blood transfusions, doctors increasingly administered individual
components such as red cells, white cells, platelets, and plasma. Plasma itself
was giving way to an increasing number of fractionation products, including
albumin, gamma globulins, blood-typing sera, and clotting factors for people
with hemophilia. Doctors used more blood in more ways than ever before.
At this point the blood business divided. Hospitals and blood banks continued
collecting whole blood, but plasma became an industrial affair. A new process
called plasmapheresis propelled the separation. The system involved removing
blood from the donor, centrifuging it to separate the plasma, and then
re-infusing the red cells. The procedure was uncomfortable and could take a
couple of hours (at least until it was automated in the mid-1980s), which made
it necessary to pay the donors.
Plasmapheresis proved invaluable to the drug industry, allowing manufacturers
to harvest greater volumes of the raw plasma they desired. The process was safer
than harvesting whole blood, since removing only plasma did not lead to anemia.
Furthermore, while it takes weeks for the body to regenerate red cells, plasma
can be replenished in a couple of days. All this meant that drug firms could
collect more often than before: Previously they had had to wait a couple of
months between purchases of blood from a given donor; now they could buy from
him twice a week -- 104 times a year instead of 6.
What happened next can best be envisioned by imagining that someone invented
a very fast and cheap way of drilling for oil at the same time that the industry
discovered petrochemicals. Almost overnight, the collection business boomed.
Hundreds of new plasma centers sprang up to meet the demands of the burgeoning
"biologics" industry, as it came to be called. Some belonged to the drug firms
that had pioneered fractionation under Cohn; others belonged to small
independents, specializing in collecting and selling the raw material. Like
drilling rigs at an oil field, they sprouted wherever the resource seemed
promising -- around army bases and college campuses, in downtrodden neighborhoods,
and along the Mexican-American border. From there the "source plasma" was sent
to the nation's biologics manufacturers, who, in order to process it
economically, pooled it in vats containing thousands of pints.
New classes of people became involved -- shadier buyers, more desperate
sellers. Experts had warned about the potential for abuse. During a 1966
conference at Cohn's Protein Foundation, Dr. Tibor Greenwalt, a leader in
nonprofit blood banking, cautioned against "exploiting for its proteins a
population which is least able to donate them" -- yet that gave little pause to
commercial entrepreneurs. Tom Asher, a fifty-year veteran of the plasma industry
who worked as a manager for the Hyland division of Baxter Laboratories, ruefully
recalled that his company set up its first center at Fourth and Town streets in
Los Angeles -- "absolute dead center, Skid Row. We'd immunize donors with tetanus
to increase their antibodies for tetanus gamma globulin. When hurried, our
doctor, who was also the bouncer, would occasionally give them shots of tetanus
antigen right through their trousers." Later the company took to "bankrolling
all sorts of characters" to meet the booming demand for source plasma, many with
questionable ethics. Another Los Angeles center, called Doctors Blood Bank and
run by two local pathologists, paid donors in chits redeemable at a local liquor
Stuart Bauer, a writer for NEW YORK magazine, investigated the world
of down-and-out plasma sellers by becoming one himself. After a loved one died
of transfusion-related hepatitis, Bauer went undercover, donning old clothes and
selling his plasma thirteen times over a period of seven weeks. His tale was a
bleak one of hardened collectors and avaricious doctors, and of the winos,
addicts, malnourished, and destitute whose plasma they "farmed" at the center in
Times Square. Among the chilling scenes in his article is one about the
experience of donation:
The pain of insertion comes in three overlapping waves. The first two waves -- the
puncturing of the skin and the piercing of the radial vein -- are dicey enough,
but stubbing a toe or biting the tongue are really worse. It is the third wave,
the least painful part, that carries the freight. For when the body of the
catheter is fitted inside the vein, distending it, it catches you -- of all
places -- in the heart, which registers the intrusion with a chilly "ping."
When the next beat comes the heart's resumption has a choked rhythm . . . and
you resolve from here on in to cater to your heart. But the only favor it occurs
to you you can do is not to breathe too deeply. So you take in air in miserly
little sniffs. And root for your heart as you would for a long-distance runner
who had stumbled. ...
Later he describes a scene in which the doctor at the center finds an elderly
donor lying quite still with his mouth and eyes open. "How are we today,
Sydney?" he asks the old man. But Sydney is dead. After the body is removed, the
doctor remarks that during his years of association with the center the man had
donated almost half a million cubic centimeters of blood. " 'One always hates to
lose a veteran donor with a gamma globulin like his. ...'"
"Ever wonder what it's like?" [he asks the nurse].
"... Wonder what what's like?"
"Being on the other end of a hollow needle the size of a swizzle stick? ... It's like being impaled on the antenna of a car radio, that's what it's like."
Reprinted by permission of the author from BLOOD: A HISTORY OF MEDICINE AND COMMERCE by Douglas Starr. Copyright © 1998 by Douglas Starr. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.