Holy Grail: Extending the shelf-life of platelets using cryopreservation

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Can you describe the aim of your research in 10 words?

To extend the shelf-life of platelets using cryopreservation.

Why do we need to extend their shelf-life? How are platelets currently stored and what are the issues?

Platelets are routinely stored at room-temperature in gas permeable bags with constant agitation. Under these storage conditions, their shelf-life is limited to seven days. This results in logistical issues for supplying and maintaining adequate platelet stocks while avoiding wastage.

The cryopreservation of platelets has the potential to reduce component wastage by significantly extending the product shelf-life from seven days up to at least two years. We hope the extended shelf-life afforded by platelet cryopreservation will facilitate the supply of platelet products to rural and remote hospitals that are currently unable to hold platelet inventory due to their short expiry.

What have you learned about platelet cryopreservation so far?

We’ve discovered that cryopreserved platelets don’t behave in the same way as room-temperature-stored platelets, in particular they don’t respond as much when we stimulate them with agonists.  Several mechanisms likely contribute to the loss of signalling following cryopreservation, including a reduction in collagen-binding receptors, depletion of calcium stores, and impaired signalling cascades. These findings help us understand the differences between how fresh and frozen platelets perform their function.

We’ve also started to uncover the mechanisms that lead to platelet damage during the freezing and thawing process. Interestingly, calcium appears to play a key role in the cryopreservation-induced changes to frozen platelets and we can reduce these changes by adding a calcium chelator prior to freezing. Calcium-chelated cryopreserved platelets have a higher recovery, improved retention of highly labile receptors and a reduction in activation markers. This provides critical information as to how cryopreserved platelets are altered by intracellular calcium, highlighting calcium signalling as a potential target to improve the overall quality of cryopreserved platelet products.

Sounds like there’s some challenges associated with cryopreservation. How are you looking to improve platelet quality and function?

I’m currently looking to characterise microRNA expression in stored platelet components and explore how this relates to platelet quality and function. Specifically, I’m investigating the link between microRNA expression and platelet apoptosis.

Platelet quality deteriorates over the shelf-life of the component as the platelets reach the end of their lifespan and begin to undergo apoptosis. However, we still don’t understand if platelets stored under alternative conditions, such as cryopreservation, are more or less apoptotic than room-temperature stored platelets.

By analysing apoptosis-related microRNAs in stored platelet components, we may uncover new insights into the regulation of platelet function during each storage condition.

How long before your work affects blood product availability and patient care? 

Following a successful phase 1 clinical trial, which demonstrated the safety and feasibility of cryopreserved platelets in a civilian surgery setting, some of our team is now testing their efficacy in a large, definitive trial known as CLIP-II, which aims to provide data for regulatory approval.

My work helps us understand the details of what happens to platelets when they are cryopreserved, and my findings may support the development of cryopreserved platelets for routine clinical use.

The ability to routinely manufacture cryopreserved platelet components will circumvent several issues associated with conventional platelet storage and broaden the availability of this life-saving transfusion product to remote, rural, and military environments.

This seems like an exciting line of research. What drew you to it?

During my university studies, I particularly enjoyed my haematology courses, and it was this passion that connected me with a mentor, Dr Lacey Johnson, who has been instrumental to my research career.

In 2016, I was fortunate enough to join Lifeblood’s R&D team in Sydney to undertake my Honours research project under the supervision of Dr Johnson and I loved it so much I never left! Several years on, I have completed my PhD and am part way through my first Postdoc position.

What aspect of your work excites you the most?

It is the joy in discovery! Every day is different and provides another opportunity to discover something new. It is always exciting when all the pieces start to come together to complete a story and answer your research question. Along the journey, new research questions arise to explore and so the cycle continues.

What is your biggest research hurdle?

One research hurdle that I have faced is science communication. That is, extending beyond the expectation of presenting at conferences or publishing manuscripts. There is rising interest in visual abstracts, which pushes my design skills to create concise, visual summaries of my work. The presence of science communication on Twitter is also growing exponentially. So, if you can summarise your research into 280 characters or less to post alongside your visual abstract, then you are probably onto a winner! Despite the challenges, I believe having broad skills in science communication has the potential to present exciting possibilities for your research and career.

Sounds like you’re clearing that hurdle and it’s awesome we’ve been able to give you another platform to share your research on.

Ok, last question: COVID gave us a lot of time to pick up new hobbies. What did you take up?

I embraced my creative side and taught myself several new crafting skills. One of these was learning the ropes of macramé. I liked the challenge of learning the different knot types and patterns I could create. I finished several mini projects throughout the various lockdowns, most of which were plant hangers that I have displayed in my garden or gifted to friends. I’m currently working on my first wall piece which features DNA double helix inspired knots!

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