New discovery could end platelet shortages, help preemies

Study identifies 'master switch' to open door to new treatments for a serious condition called neonatal thrombocytopenia affecting up to 30 percent of preemies.
By Amy Wallace  |  May 19, 2017 at 12:48 PM
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May 19 (UPI) -- University of Virginia researchers have discovered a method for doctors to be able to produce blood platelets in large quantities outside the body.

Researchers have identified a "master switch" to control whether the bone marrow produces cells called megakaryocytes of the type found in adults or the ones found in infants.

The ability to change between the two could allow doctors to overcome the obstacle of making large quantities of platelets outside the body, especially in infants whose megakaryocytes work to divide and produce more megakaryocytes but do not produce platelets as well as adult megakaryocytes.

"It turns out in premature infants and newborns that [the platelet] reserve is compromised," Dr. Adam Goldfarb, of UVA's Department of Pathology, said in a press release. "They are less capable of responding to distress and the demand for increased platelet production. A good percentage of those babies, these tiny little babies, require platelet transfusions to keep their platelets up."

Currently, doctors cannot produce large quantities of platelets in the lab and must rely on platelet donations for patients, which can be a problem when there are platelet shortages at blood banks. The new discovery may help change that.

"It's thought that in our bodies every single megakaryocyte produces like a thousand platelets, and when you do it in culture [outside the body] it's like 10," Goldfarb said. "We think the pathway we're studying enhances the efficiency of platelet release, and this pathway, we think, could be manipulated in both directions: to suppress the pathway to promote the growth [of megakaryocytes' and then to activate the pathway at some point to enhance the efficiency of platelet release."

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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