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UNC Health Care System introduces new safety measures for platelet transfusions

UNC graduate Alice Huang donates blood at the Blood Donation Center at UNC Hospitals in June 2016.
UNC graduate Alice Huang donates blood at the Blood Donation Center at UNC Hospitals in June 2016.

Receiving a platelet transfusion in the UNC Health Care system just got safer.

UNC Health Care has started treating the platelets it gives patients with the INTERCEPT Blood System, which reduces the risk of pathogens being passed from a donor’s platelets to a patient receiving a transfusion.

In the United States, incidences of transfusion-transmitted infections are rare, but according to the UNC Health Care Blood Donation Center, risk from bacteria and emerging pathogens still exists. The overall bacterial contamination rate is one in about every 1,500 platelet units, but people affiliated with the UNC Blood Donation Center said the new technology will eradicate any risk of infection. 

“With this process we’ve just adapted, we would be able to cut that completely out,” UNC Blood Donation Center Donor Recruiter Trilby Norton said. “It neutralizes all the pathogens, kills everything in there, but obviously keeps the platelets really safe. It’s a way, way safer product for our patients.”

Norton said even before the Blood Donation Center added the INTERCEPT system, receiving a platelet transfusion was not a risky procedure.

“This is just an extra, added step to make sure that they are absolutely perfect to be transfused to our patients,” Norton said. “We’re really taking that extra step to make sure that everybody is safe and doesn’t have exposure to any pathogens.”

The process has been used in Europe for more than a decade, but was only introduced to the U.S. health care system less than three years ago, UNC Blood Donation Center Supervisor Tom Neish said.

He said it took some time to properly introduce the INTERCEPT system to UNC Health Care’s infrastructure, but that UNC adopted it as soon as it could.

“It’s safer for our patients,” Neish said.

Neish said INTERCEPT works by adding a chemical called amotosalen to platelets and exposing them to UV light. The amotosalen binds RNA or DNA, preventing them from ever replicating. Excess amotosalen is removed, and the platelets are ready for transfusion.

“For a normal platelet transfusion, actually with any transfusion, there’s always a risk of a transfusion-transmitted infection, meaning a blood donor who may have some disease or bacteria or virus that can be spread through transfusion,” Neish said. “What this pathogen reduction does is inactivates any possible pathogen, which is bacteria or virus in the platelets."

Those interested in donating platelets may do so at the UNC Blood Donation Center at the N.C. Cancer Hospital on weekdays from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

All platelets donated at the UNC Blood Donation Center remain in the UNC Health Care system and are used for patient transfusions locally.

“The donor process is completely the same, it doesn’t change anything for the donors, they don’t have to worry about anything,” Norton said. “Our patients, now, don’t have to worry about a single thing when they’re getting a platelet transfusion. Again, not that there was a huge, huge risk of infection beforehand, but this just kind of puts them more at ease.”


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