Beyond blood drives: Stem cell donors help fuel scientific discovery

Volunteers for the little-known procedures earn up to $800 – and the chance to contribute to cutting-edge research
Seth McPherson
Seth McPherson, 23, settles in for a three-hour session of leukapheresis at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance on a recent weekday. The Seattle pipefitter said he likes the idea of donating his cells for science. Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

If Kristie Rollins seems unnaturally interested in the state of your veins, don’t worry.

It’s an occupational hazard for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center project manager, who spends half of her time at the Heimfeld Lab trying to track down people willing to donate their peripheral blood stem cells, or PBSC – all in the name of science.

“When I show up, people say, ‘The Vampire’s here,’” said Rollins, who admits she recruits colleagues, friends and friends-of-friends as donors -- and has even been known to flag down waitresses with particularly promising arms. 

For Rollins, finding PBSC donors is serious business. Most people know they can donate blood, or even blood plasma, in order to help people in need of transfusions.

But they typically don’t know there’s also a huge demand for blood cells to fuel a growing field of laboratory research and other studies.

“Many investigators need millions of cells to do their research work,” said Dr. Shelly Heimfeld, who is the co-principal investigator of Fred Hutch’s Core Center of Excellence in Molecular Hematology, which coordinates the donations. “For some of them, they can’t do the experiments if they can’t get enough cells.”

That’s where volunteers like Seth McPherson come in. On a recent Wednesday, the 23-year-old Seattle pipefitter was in a hospital bed at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance at 8 a.m., getting ready for nurse Phil Joyner to hook him up to the machine that would take blood out of one arm, skim off a portion of white blood cells, and return the rest through the other arm.

The process, called leukapheresis, followed four days of growth-stimulant shots to “mobilize” or increase the number of stem cells available in McPherson’s blood. Retrieving the cells took about three hours on each of two days. For his trouble, McPherson received $800, which he said didn’t cover his time away from work.

That procedure was more complicated than the first time McPherson donated non-mobilized cells, which are used to obtain crucial blood components such as T-cell and B-cell lymphocytes.  It was a one-day process for which he received $300. The money is nice, but McPherson said he’s more motivated by the idea of advancing science.

“I think it’s awesome,” he said. “I don’t mind my body being used for research.”

The process exchanges about 12 liters, or more than 3 gallons, of blood to come up with 250 milliliters, or about 1 cup of usable cells. A single mobilized donation can yield 20 billion to 30 billion total cells, which contains around 100 million to 200 million stem cells, Heimfeld said.

Stem cells, the body’s magicians, are undifferentiated cells that can develop into other types of cells – and divide without limit to replenish other cells and repair damage. Previously, they could be obtained only from bone marrow in a difficult and uncomfortable procedure. Now, stem cells can be isolated easily from the peripheral blood, the flowing, circulating blood of the body.

It takes about eight donors a month, or nearly 100 a year, to supply the hundreds of billions of stem cells used by Fred Hutch researchers – and others nationwide.

“Over the last five years, we’ve sent cells out to over 90 investigators across the country,” Heimfeld said.

Fred Hutch provides the cells at cost to the researchers, offering a steep discount over commercially available products. For instance, one vial of five million CD34-positive cells, a key tool for scientists, would sell for $2,500 from a for-profit provider. Instead, the Hutch charges $500, Heimfeld said.

The value the cells provide is immense, he added. Heimfeld points to more than 50 papers published in leading scientific journals between 2010 and 2014 that relied on blood stem cells donated by Fred Hutch volunteers.

Fred Hutch has been retrieving and supplying the cells for about 15 years through an ongoing grant offered by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases program, or NIDDK.  The Hutch is one of very few sites that supplies cells to outside researchers, Heimfeld said.

But first, they have to find donors.

That’s harder than it may seem, said Rollins, who contacts about three volunteers for every successful donation. It takes good veins and a willingness to sit still for up to four hours with a needle in each arm, she said. 

Donors have to be between the ages of 18 and 70 and in good health, plus they need to meet a range of criteria for donating blood products.

Most of the volunteers so far have heard about the program through word-of-mouth. McPherson has a friend who works with T cells in a Fred Hutch lab who told him about it. Another donor, Michael Menard, 26, of Seattle, is married to a scientist in the Kiem Laboratory.

“I heard about it through osmosis,” he said. “It’s just sort of unavoidable if you spend a lot of time at the center.”

Menard, who works nights as a private security worker, has donated mobilized cells three times. That’s the cap agreed to for this protocol because researchers have limited data about the effects of the bone marrow stem cell stimulant known as granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, or G-CSF, used to mobilize the cells. It appears safe in this context, researchers said.

Menard and McPherson both say they suffered aches in their bones and a general feeling of illness, like having the flu, after receiving the G-CSF. But it wasn’t bad and not severe enough to deter them from donating.

Both men said they were recruited in part because of the quality of their veins. ‘“They’re very visible, easy to find. They’re a phlebotomist’s dream,” Menard said.

Many PBSC donors are motivated by altruism, Heimfeld said. Even though privacy constraints mean they’ll never know how their cells are used or what the outcomes may be, they’re happy to contribute.

“Most of them are motivated by the fact that they’re helping science move along,” Heimfeld said.

Menard couldn’t agree more.

“It’s really cool,” he said. “If I was rich I’d contribute tons of money, but I don’t have money. I have tons of blood and great veins.”

People interested in donating mobilized or non-mobilized cells for research use should send an email to Kristie Rollins, Fred Hutch project manager, at

JoNel Aleccia is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and Before that she was a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest. Reach her at

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