Vital fluids

Published February 01 2019

A bag of plasma ANKAWÜ/Wikimedia Commons You never know what you’ll turn out to have in common with your co-workers; science writer John Arnst and I bonded over selling our blood plasma.

Plasma, the yellowish fluid in which blood cells and platelets are suspended, is essential for treating trauma patients and those with a number of other medical conditions. It’s needed in such large quantities that people get paid for it — though you aren’t technically being paid for the fluid; you’re being compensated for the hour or so that you spend lying in a padded lounge chair with a big needle stuck in one arm. A healthy person can donate about three cups of plasma twice a week. When I did it, my time was worth about $30 a pop.

In that hour, a whirling machine separates the plasma from everything else in a process called apheresis and returns the blood cells and platelets to your arm. The machine is mostly clear plastic tubes and cylinders, so you can watch the process, which repeats about six times per donation, and monitor the slow drip of plasma into a plastic bottle. When it’s over, a pint of saline gets pushed into your arm to restore the fluid level.

Unlike blood donation, selling plasma is not an altruistic activity. It’s about the dollars on a debit card. John said he did it for about six weeks right after he graduated from college. I was an underpaid newspaper editor and single mom when I sold my plasma off and on for about a year, long enough for my arms to develop some suspicious marks and for my iron levels to dip perilously a couple of times.

While reclining in that lounge chair, I thought a fair amount about the marketing of bodily fluids, so when John mentioned Stephen Withers’ efforts to turn other blood types into O and its possible impact on the blood donation industry, all my old questions came back: Why do people get paid to donate plasma but not blood? If people give their blood for free, why does it cost so much when you get a transfusion? How do blood banks persuade enough people with the right types of blood to donate?

I was not the first person to think about this. Just Google “selling blood” and numerous articles on the topic pop up.

John writes that the blood industry is in trouble. Can it be saved by science? We don’t have an answer to that question, but our February feature story certainly lays out the issues and explains how blood (both industry and science) got where it is today. It’s a good read.

Comfort Dorn Comfort Dorn is the managing editor of ASBMB Today. Follow her on Twitter.