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Breaking down blood: Platelets

Airman Brenda Prudencio, 81st Force Support Squadron customer support specialist, has her blood drawn by Amber Horne, 81st Diagnostic and Therapeutics Squadron medical lab technician, during a blood drive at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. Airman Brenda Prudencio, 81st Force Support Squadron customer support specialist, has her blood drawn by Amber Horne, 81st Diagnostic and Therapeutics Squadron medical lab technician, during a blood drive at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. In an average healthy adult, red blood cells far outnumber platelets in the blood. Unlike whole blood, platelets have a much shorter shelf life and must be transfused within five days of collection. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)

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Armed Services Blood Program

Blood, made up of both liquids and solids, is a vital tissue of the human body. It carries oxygen, forms clots on wounds and helps fight off infections. It can also be a lifesaving treatment for someone who is ill or injured. 

In an average healthy adult, red blood cells far outnumber platelets in the blood. In fact, according to the Merck Medical Manuals, it is a “ratio of about one platelet to every 20 red blood cells.” So why exactly are these small cells so important? 

First and foremost, platelets aren’t actually cells. 

According to the American Society of Hematology, platelets – also known as thrombocytes – are “small fragments of cells” that help control bleeding by gathering at the site of an injury.  These “sticky” particles adhere to the lining of an injured blood vessel and “form a platform on which blood coagulation can occur.”  

Coagulation then leads to what is known as a fibrin clot that covers a wound and stops blood from leaking out, ASH says. “Fibrin also forms the initial scaffolding upon which new tissue forms, thus promoting healing.”  

For these reasons, platelets are an important blood component for the Armed Services Blood Program. Because these “cell-like fragments” are so important for clotting, they can often times be the difference between life and death for an injured service member on the battlefield.  

However, the ASBP doesn’t only use platelets for severely wounded service members on the battlefield. Thousands of patients with life-threatening illnesses – such as leukemia, anemia, cancer and other diseases of the blood – are in need of lifesaving platelet transfusions.  

Bone marrow malfunction or chemotherapy treatment can leave a patient’s body unable to produce platelets. Although platelets do not cure a disease, they provide time for treatments to work, a cure to be found or the time necessary for patients to produce their own platelets again.

“Unlike whole blood, platelets have a much shorter shelf life and must be transfused within five days of collection,” said Navy Capt. Roland Fahie, ASBP director. “Therefore, we have a constant need for platelet donors. Regular donors help ensure platelets are always available whenever and wherever they are needed the most.”  

While whole blood can only be donated once every 56 days – or about six times a year – platelets can be donated up to 24 times every year.  Donors who meet the criteria to donate whole blood, are likely able to donate platelets, as well. The only difference is that platelet donors cannot take aspirin 72 hours before a donation or ibuprofen 24 hours before.  

Al Whitney is an avid supporter of the ASBP and a regular platelet donor. He began donating whole blood and platelets in the late 1960s and early 1970s; but in 2007 he created his “Platelets Across America” campaign with a goal of donating platelets in every state. He accomplished that goal in only five years, and now aspires to donating at every ASBP donor center, too. 

“A father will walk his daughter down the aisle, a mother will see her son graduate, a child will go home from the hospital with their parents, all because of what you do,” Whitney said. 

The emerging world of cold-store platelets  

In June 2015, the Food and Drug Administration cleared the use of cold-stored apheresis platelets for the resuscitation of bleeding patients – a huge advancement for military medicine.  

Blood loss is the leading cause of death on the battlefield, and until the protocol change by the FDA, only room-temperature platelets were allowed for use in trauma patients. This means, that the platelets could only be stored for five days. Bacteria could form in those five days, and therefore hospitals would need to test the unit before transfusion. Cold storage of platelets, however, allows for the use of platelets immediately, without testing.  

"Down the line, ‘extra life’ from platelets could easily translate into fewer lives lost on the battlefield,” said Dr. Heather Pidcoke, the deputy task area manager of the Coagulation and Blood Research Program at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research.  

Disclaimer: Re-published content may have been edited for length and clarity. Read original post.

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