Blog of Bloodworks Northwest

A lifesaving partnership: Bloodworks Serum Donor Program & cancer breakthroughs

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch, as it’s colloquially known) is right up the street from Bloodworks Research Institute in the heart of the Seattle tech corridor.

Fred Hutch is an internationally recognized destination for study areas including cancer, HIV, and now COVID-19. The South Lake Union Campus has generated three Nobel Prize winners, hundreds of clinical studies, and countless biomedical breakthroughs. They are among the best in the world at what they do.

Here’s how Fred Hutch partners with Bloodworks’ Serum Donor Program.

Clinical Trials: today’s treatments

Serum is the liquid part of blood, with the clotting factors removed. It contains nutrients that are essential for cells grown in lab settings as part of immunotherapy treatments for cancer and other diseases, such as chimeric antigen receptor-engineered T cell (CAR-T) therapy. CAR-T therapy takes a patient’s own (autologous) T-cells, part of the body’s immune system, and engineers them to fight cancer cells.

[learn more: What is Serum?]

Fred Hutch’s scientists use donated serum to grow these cells until there are enough of them to be effective.

Following collection at one of Bloodworks’ three collection sites and processing in our Advanced Cell Laboratory, donor serum arrives at Fred Hutch’s Cell Processing Facility, where it’s labelled and quarantined in an ultracold refrigerator to wait for confirmation of virology test results from Bloodworks. Because the serum will be part of a product going into patients, it must meet rigorous regulatory requirements prior to transfusion.

Once cleared by Bloodworks Donor Testing, the serum is formulated into media for cells to grow.

Each clean room in the Cell Processing Facility (CPF) has windows so that onlookers can observe what’s happening inside without having to “gear up,” or don full protective clothing to ensure the environment remains aseptic. Again, because everything created in CPF may eventually go into a patient, it’s crucial that the space remains uncontaminated.

Separately, a patient’s cells are collected and transferred to the CPF. T-cell subsets are selected them using beads that bind to these cells to mark them, and then the cell’s genes are modified into cancer-killing weapons.

Cells are grown in media containing human serum. Over many days, the media will regularly need to be replenished as the cells divide and consume its nutrients. Recent advances in technology allow this to happen in a disposable bioreactor that facilitates feeds media over time, a logistic improvement to manipulating flasks in a hood!

The overall process takes 1 to 3 weeks, and the CPF creates drugs for 2-15 patients at a time. Many of their patients have leukemia or other forms of cancer, but recently, the team has also been making treatments for COVID.

Heather Ruud, manager of the Cell Processing Facility, says that working on COVID treatment has made her feel helpful during the past year-and-a-half of uncertainty.

And she always loves when she hears about a patient in remission because of the clinical protocols created in CPF.

Clinical Research: tomorrow’s breakthroughs

The Greenberg lab in Fred Hutch’s Clinical Research Division focuses on advancing immunology, immunobiology, and adaptive therapies like the ones created in the CPF.

CAR-T therapy has shown promise as a treatment for cancer and is making waves in the cancer community, but it has limitations.

Dr. Tijana Martinov points at a computer screen in a laboratory showing cell growth.
Dr. Tijana Martinov

Dr. Tijana Martinov, a postdoc in the Greenberg lab, explains that CAR-T cells recognize and target surface proteins on cancer cells, though the cancer cells may not need these proteins to survive and may evolve to stop expressing the protein, rendering the treatment ineffective; you can’t kill what you can’t find.

“T-cell Receptor (TCR) therapy is an alternate way T-cells can fight cancer. TCRs ‘see’ protein-derived targets in the context of immune scaffold molecules, and we can isolate TCRs specific to proteins that are absolutely essential to cancer cell survival. We are trying to create a toolbox that recognizes cancer-associated proteins in the context of different molecules to treat a wide variety of patients,” Dr. Martinov says.

Natalie Duerkopp, a woman with cropped white hair and a vibrant red cardigan, standing in front of a wall of Fred Hutch lab staff.
Natalie Duerkopp

“And to grow our T-cells, we need human serum,” adds Natalie Duerkopp, Project Manager of the Greenberg lab. The serum lets the desired T-cells grow 4 to 6 weeks until there are enough for Dr. Martinov to sort, sequence and identify TCRs, before putting the isolated TCRs into T-cells from an unrelated donor and co-culturing these with tumor cells. If it all goes according to plan, the enhanced TCR-engineered healthy T-cells will find and attack cancer cells.

Natalie explains how Fred Hutch used to get serum before their partnership with Bloodworks.

Her history with Fred Hutch goes back decades: there’s a large, black-and-white photo of a lunchtime gathering of yore hanging in a basement hallway, with a baby-faced Natalie somewhere in the middle of a group of researchers and two Nobel Laureates. With beards and flannel ever in style in Seattle, the main indicator of the photo’s age is the coloring (or lack thereof) and someone’s Bee Gees lunchbox.

A black and white photo of researchers from 1980
Natalie’s team, circa 1980. Natalie is highlighted here.

In the 1990s, Fred Hutch had a team of twenty-five on staff who would draw blood in tubes, process it down to serum in their labs, and send samples to Bloodworks for virology testing. And Natalie coordinated it all.

It was a lot of work. Natalie wrangled donors, phlebotomy staff, and materials every month for years. “Every time we receive serum I think, ‘thank goodness I didn’t have to do it this time.’”

Photo of a vintage yellow medical chair used to draw blood.
A vintage phlebotomy chair outside of the Greenberg Lab, a relic from the old days of serum collection

Because Bloodworks specializes in donor recruitment, collection, testing, and advanced cell processing, the partnership with our Serum Donor Program allows the Greenberg lab to allocate more resources to doing what they do best: cancer research and care.

Learn more about Bloodworks Serum Donor Program at

November 26, 2021 10:00AM

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