Health & Medicine

Struggling with a chronic or life-threatening illness? Your blood can help research cures

For anyone diagnosed with cancer, Alzheimer’s or AIDS, perhaps the best hope for finding cures lies in their own bodies – more specifically, in the cells traveling through their blood.

Scientists at major universities and pharmaceutical companies need more of those cells to do their cutting-edge medical research, and Folsom’s StemExpress is leading the way nationwide. Company CEO Cate Dyer is trying to get out the word to potential donors that their blood is essential to this work.

StemExpress collects blood, bone marrow, plasma or cord blood at its centers and compensates donors for their time and discomfort. Then it processes their samples into a range of products, including many of the cells on your body’s healing team: white blood cells, stem cells, T cells and others that answer the call when the body confronts a disease or disability.

“We really want to get out to people in Sacramento and the region that we need diseased donors at our sites, and that’s everyone – people who have an early-diagnosed cancer, people in treatment, they’re having radiation … post-treatment and remission, from everything like AML, leukemia, lymphoma, all of the major cancer space,” said Cate Dyer, the company’s founder and CEO. “But also, we have AIDS projects going on right now where we need AIDS-positive samples.”

It’s not just cancer or AIDS, though. Some researchers also use cells from the samples to study chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure or to study illnesses that have no cures such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

Researchers can take many paths when studying cells from different people, at different stages of a disease, said Dr. Michael Chez, a pediatric neurologist with Sutter in the Sacramento region. For example, researchers could develop screenings for early detection of a disease or genetic defect, or duplicate defective tissues to see how to repair what went wrong. Their findings might help to develop drugs or chemicals that will help to reverse or change the course of a disease. Already, scientists have begun harvesting stem cells, turning them into specific tissues and using them for replacement or repair.

To help potential donors understand the impact they can have on research, Dyer highlighted the work that StemExpress started doing seven years ago with San Diego-based Sequenom, a life-sciences company that was attempting to develop a less-invasive way to check for genetic defects in fetuses. At the time, doctors were using a needle, pushing through the wall of the abdomen and into the uterus to collect and test elements of the amniotic fluid to assess genetic abnormalities.

It was a procedure that frightened women not only because of concerns about their unborn babies but also because they feared that they might be one of the small percentage of women who suffered a major complication as a result of the amniocentesis.

Sequenom envisioned a test that, by contrast, would simply examine blood drawn from the expectant mother. To develop the test, Sequenom’s researchers would have to isolate and study DNA strands for both expectant moms and their fetuses. By studying DNA from thousands of donors, the life sciences company was able to identify DNA mutations, deletions and alterations and develop a way to check for them in the blood rather than in amniotic fluid.

“At the time, when I met (Sequenom’s senior director of clinical operations) … they were sourcing about 25 (blood) samples a week, just to give you a ballpark,” Dyer said, “and I asked him, ‘Well, how long is it going to take you to meet all the (Food and Drug Administration) requirements needed, sourcing 25 samples a week?’ And, he was like, ‘Five to six years … to get all our projects together.’ ”

Dyer made it her priority to significantly speed up that development timeline by delivering 300 samples a week, a feat she said the company accomplished within 90 days. Along the way, Stem Express became the largest global supplier of maternal blood for research purposes.

“If it takes six years for them to source all the samples and another year and a half to get that through the FDA, you’re looking at an eight-year turnaround just to get that ... to a patient,” Dyer said. “If we can shorten that, which we did, to almost a year and a half and get that then to the FDA and back out to patients, we’ve just massively impacted patient health care.”

Chez talks regularly with patients or the parents of patients who are impatient for better treatments or cures, he said, but the availability of donor blood, cells and DNA already has sped up the pace of development of new drugs, screenings or treatments, and that pace should continue to improve as the bank of samples grows.

What also excites Chez is that multiple researchers can benefit from the millions of cells extracted from a blood draw from a single patient. Think of what this means, he said, for orphan diseases — those conditions that affect fewer than 200,000 U.S. residents, such as Lou Gehrig’s, cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy. A physician might run into a patient with one of these conditions once every 10 years, he said, but a few people living with these illnesses now have the power to provide cells to foster research around the world.

Experts then can study how a disease manifests at the cellular level, design methods of treatment and test them on human tissue in the lab, Chez said. There may not be enough patients in any one place to design treatment studies, he said, so human tissues can expand statistical ways to study the safety and efficacy of treatments.

“One patient could help a disease study in multiple places versus just being limited to one researcher at one university,” Chez said. “If you have multiple people doing the work, it just amplifies how quickly things get done and the statistical power of that type of research. This is exponentially changing the algorithm of how research will be done in disease.”

Dyer said she is often asked: Could giving blood pose a health risk for people struggling with cancer or other diseases? Her answer: It depends on the patient. StemExpress puts each donor through health assessments to determine how much blood they can give. Some patients may only be able to give one tablespoon; others, as much as six tablespoons.

Patients receive $25-$50 for blood draws, fees that are set by an independent review board. The company has collection centers at 2210 E. Bidwell St. in Folsom, another in Arlington, Mass., and is working to open another center in San Diego.

Researchers are typically specific about the kinds of diseased blood they need and even the stage or progression, Dyer said, so StemExpress is working to expand its donor database to ensure it has a variety of the cells needed.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

Want to support biomedical research?

StemExpress is seeking people willing to give blood, white blood cells and bone marrow. The company accepts donations from patients who are healthy or those struggling with chronic or terminal illnesses.

The company compensates donors, based on the time they spend and the invasiveness of the procedure. People who give blood receive $25-50, for instance, while marrow donors receive $250.

A review board, independent of StemExpress, sets the payments. To learn more or to make an appointment, visit or call 1-877-900-7836.