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For this instalment of “Meet the researcher”, we met with Dr. Jason Acker, a senior research scientist at Canadian Blood Services who specializes in the manufacturing and storage of blood components.
“What gets me up in the morning is the knowledge that through the work of my team and my collaborators, we are able to have a direct impact on the lives of patients. The technical and scientific support we provide helps the organization make critical decisions about the quality of the products that we are collecting, manufacturing and distributing.”
~ Dr. Jason Acker, Research Scientist, Canadian Blood Services
How long have you been with Canadian Blood Services?
As an employee, I’ve been with Canadian Blood Services for more than 15 years. I joined as an associate scientist in 2002. Before that, I worked in the Edmonton Blood Centre as an undergraduate and graduate student for almost 10 years, starting in 1992. This predates the creation of Canadian Blood Services, so I can say that I’ve been associated with the organization for more than 25 years!
What’s your role?
I am a senior research scientist with Canadian Blood Services’ Centre for Innovation and a professor in the department of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. My role is multifaceted in that I have research, development, teaching and administrative responsibilities both at Canadian Blood Services and at the University of Alberta.
Note: Dr. Acker is the recipient of a 2018-19 Killam Professorship. We caught up with him at the International Society of Blood Transfusion congress held in Toronto in early June to ask him about this honour.
Where is your lab?
My research laboratory is located on the third floor of Canadian Blood Services’ Edmonton Centre.
Tell us about your area(s) of research.
My research focuses on three distinct areas:
Studying how cells and tissues respond when they are stored outside the body. Our general approach involves examining the natural world to learn how plants and animals survive extreme environmental stress and then assessing the application of these adaptations for clinical medicine. This has enabled us to improve methods for storing cells and tissues for transfusion and transplantation.
Understanding the many factors that influence the safety and quality of blood products in Canada. Donated blood is processed into blood components (red blood cells, platelets, plasma and plasma products) that are tested and stored before being transfused. Safety and quality may be influenced by donor factors (e.g. sex or age of the donor), how the blood is processed into components, storage times before transfusion, and ultimately how the blood products are used in the hospital. We are working to evaluate and understand these influences.
Developing new diagnostic technologies. For the first 10 years of my research career at Canadian Blood Services, we were involved in developing new ways to identify blood groups and test for infectious diseases. We used the same process that is used to manufacture computer chips (microfabrication), to build “lab on a chip” microfluidics devices with miniaturized channels, pumps, valves, and detectors, which can be used to manipulate samples for testing. We initially used this technology for malaria testing of blood donors and for testing maternal blood for fetal DNA to aid in diagnosing hemolytic disease of the newborn. More recently, our “lab on a chip” technology has been expanded to additional applications including environmental monitoring, human and veterinary medicine, and food safety.
What are you working on now?
We are currently working with collaborators to understand how donor factors (age, sex, ethnicity, frequency of donation) and changes to donor screening affect the quality of red blood cell products. Our focus has been on understanding the biological effects that donor-associated changes have on blood components to determine if changes to donor screening, blood component manufacturing or storage can be used to enhance the safety and quality of our blood products. We are contributing to national studies linking data about donors, products and recipient outcomes. This information can inform clinical studies to better understand transfusion and blood product utilization. In addition, we are working with international partners to develop innovative tools to examine the effects of donor factors on the quality of blood cells.
Read more about the effects of donor factors on transfusion outcome:
A major project within our group has been the development and evaluation of new synthetic compounds that can be used to control how and where ice formation occurs in cell and tissue systems that are frozen. We are using these nature-inspired compounds to help improve the processing efficiency, stability and post-thaw quality of red blood cells, platelets, stem cells and other cell and tissue therapies. We plan to expand this work to look at using these compounds to extend the storage time of complex tissues and organs.
In addition to our discovery research activities, we support the medical officers and our supply chain colleagues on various internal development projects. Currently, we are evaluating a new genotyping test that would allow us to determine a baby’s blood group from DNA present in a mother’s blood sample. This may change how prenatal testing is performed.
We are also working to optimize our practices to reduce transfusion-associated graft-versus-host disease (TA-GVHD), a rare but dangerous transfusion complication in which white blood cells from the transfused blood product begin to attack the recipient’s tissues. White blood cells are removed from blood components during manufacturing, but a small number may remain in the transfused blood product. These are normally destroyed by the recipient’s immune system, but patients who are immune-compromised are at risk of developing TA-GVHD. Currently, these patients are transfused with red blood cells that have been irradiated to inactivate white blood cells. We are examining whether irradiation is still needed after implementing red blood cell processing methods that greatly reduce the number of white blood cells in the transfused unit.
Why did you get into science?
Right from my early years, I have always been fascinated with puzzles. Whether they are mechanical puzzles, logical puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, or scientific/technical puzzles, I am drawn to try and understand how to solve them. This sparked my desire not only to solve tough technical problems, but also to understand the scientific basis for the solution so that I could make solving the next puzzle easier. I was naturally attracted to science as it provided the tools (the scientific method) and the knowledge that is often necessary to be able to answer the hard questions and solve the tough problems!
What inspires you?
What gets me up in the morning is the knowledge that through the work of my team and my collaborators, we are able to have a direct impact on the lives of patients. The technical and scientific support we provide helps the organization make critical decisions about the quality of the products that we are collecting, manufacturing and distributing. Our basic discovery work can translate into new processes, technologies or commercial products. Unlike an artist whose impact may not be realized until late in life or even well after death, as a research scientist with Canadian Blood Services we can look back at our accomplishments every year and see how we have had the opportunity to have an impact on the lives of Canadians.
I also gain great inspiration from working with really smart, engaged and motivated students and colleagues. There is nothing more infectious than the energy that comes from interacting with a diverse team of people with broad experiences and knowledge that are collectively working together to solve hard problems.
What do you find most exciting about your work?
The unknown. As the old saying goes, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” To use the puzzle analogy, often we find ourselves with a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle and have no idea what the final picture should look like. This can be both exciting, as you put together the pieces and slowly develop a better idea of what the truth looks like, and terrifying, because there is no guarantee that you will be able to put all the pieces together. Sometimes we have to abandon the puzzle and come back to it after we learn more about how some of the pieces might fit together. Often we are surprised by what we learn in the process. But the feeling you get from putting two pieces of the puzzle together… that is really exciting.
What work are you most proud of?
Through our research we have been able to develop better methods to evaluate the impact that donor factors, manufacturing and storage have on the quality of blood products and patient outcomes. This has informed policies and practices around the appropriate use of blood products for specific patient groups in Canada and around the world, and has led to the development of specialized products for use in transfusion and transplantation medicine. I am very proud to have the opportunity to work with an outstanding team of trainees, scientific and medical colleagues, industry partners and Canadian Blood Services staff (supply chain, IT and quality control) on projects to support innovative changes in transfusion medicine.
Read more about manufacturing methods that affect quality:
When you’re not in the lab where could we find you?
Just look up…as a pilot and chief flying instructor at my local soaring club, I spend my weekends either teaching people how to fly gliders or heading out on my own across the Alberta prairies for a “dance amongst the clouds”. There is no greater joy than silently soaring under a puffy cumulus cloud with a hawk off your wing tip! I’ve been flying airplanes and teaching people to fly for 30 years and this year I had the privilege of seeing my 16-year-old daughter fly solo for the first time.
Kendra Hodgkinson is a scientific writer at Canadian Blood Services’ Centre for Innovation. Kendra first became interested in science communication and outreach during her PhD in cancer research, when she was an active volunteer with Let’s Talk Science and with Science Travels. Leading fun, hands-on science activities in schools sparked a passion for sharing the excitement of science with everyday Canadians. In her current role, she helps scientists at Canadian Blood Services share their research findings in peer-reviewed journals and in more accessible publications such as Centre for Innovation ResearchUnits and the RED blog.