Hidden in your blood, the 'liquid gold' that saves cancer patients

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UPDATED:

00:51 GMT, 24 April 2012

Simon Wilson prayed silently as the first drop of liquid gold trickled down the intravenous tube and into his wife’s chest.

It was June 2007 and Lisa, 33, was ill with leukaemia — cancer of the blood.

This was the first of dozens of transfusions not of blood but blood cells known as platelets. For while chemotherapy was keeping Lisa alive, it was also destroying her platelet levels. If these dropped too low, she wouldn’t be strong enough to keep having chemo.

Forty platelet transfusions meant Lisa could continue life-prolonging cancer treatment. Eight months after her first transfusions, she went on a final family holiday with her husband and two young daughters.

Precious time: Simon Wilson with his late wife, Lisa, and their two daughters

Precious time: Simon Wilson with his late wife, Lisa, and their two daughters Amelia and Ella

Tragically, Lisa died ten months later in April 2008. But seeing the difference the transfusions made to her life, Simon is backing calls for more people to donate platelets.

‘Most people know hospitals need us to donate blood, but few realise the importance of donating platelets,’ he says. ‘There are just 14,000 platelet donors compared to 1.4 million blood donors.

‘They ensure cancer patients are not only well enough to continue their treatment, but also strong enough to survive it.’

Platelet levels are affected during chemotherapy because the drugs destroy healthy as well as cancerous cells, says Ken Campbell, clinical information officer at Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. Cancer itself can also lead to lower platelet levels.

Transfusions help in two ways — platelets are vital for blood clotting, helping to prevent dangerous blood loss and bruising. A low platelet count is a concern for patients who need surgery or a bone marrow transplant.

‘Platelets also help stimulate the healing of wounds,’ says Mr Campbell. It’s not just cancer patients who need these transfusions — so do those with blood disorders or whose platelet counts have been affected by illness.

‘Four per cent of the eligible population donate blood — but that drops to just 0.2 per cent who donate platelets,’ says Lynne Moulder from the National Blood and Transplant Service.

The problem is donors need to be registered as platelet donors — you can’t donate blood as well. Until the Eighties, platelets were extracted from donations of blood. However, it took five donations of blood to pool enough platelets for just one dose.

There is a more efficient way of collecting platelets — a process called apheresis, where a machine takes blood from the donor, filters out the platelets and then returns the blood to the donor.

‘This is far more efficient and means we can get up to two doses from one donor,’ says Lynner.

Until the Eighties, platelets were extracted from blood, but it took five donations of blood to pool enough platelets for just one dose

Until the Eighties, platelets were extracted from blood, but it took five donations of blood to pool enough platelets for just one dose

In 2007, the Department of Health requested that at least 80 per cent of adult doses of platelets had to come from single donors via apheresis. Half of the population have a high enough count to donate platelets. Platelets are as easy to donate as blood, but it takes 90 minutes compared with ten minutes for a blood donation. And because platelets have only a seven-day shelf life, compared with 35 days for blood, donors can donate every month and not the usual four for blood donors.

‘Donations times are worked out to ensure the body is able to replenish its natural supplies,’ says Chris Gorman from the National Blood and Transplant Service. This takes 48 hours.

Simon, an IT specialist in Bakewell, Derbyshire, and his daughters Ella, now eight, and Amelia, five, appreciate only too well the gift platelet donors provide. It gave them precious extra months with Lisa.

In March 2007, she had begun to feel rundown and exhausted. She’d returned to her job as a teacher when Amelia was six months old, and at first put it down to the stress of having a baby.

‘She had a permanent cold she couldn’t shake off and was lethargic instead of her usual bubbly self,’ says Simon. She saw the GP three times and was told she had postnatal tiredness, a sinus infection or migraines.

On her fourth visit, the GP suggested it might be glandular fever and arranged a blood test.

At 10pm that evening, a laboratory doctor phoned the couple at home.

‘Being so late we knew something must be seriously wrong,’ says Simon.

‘He said abnormalities had been found and Lisa should go to hospital immediately. When she pushed for an explanation, he said it could be an infection or leukaemia. We felt utter desolation.’

Two days later came the news that she had leukaemia. ‘The specialist explained she had a 50/50 chance of being alive five years after diagnosis, but Lisa had the benefit of being young, fit and healthy,’ says Simon.

Further tests confirmed she had acute myeloid leukaemia — a form of blood cancer that progresses quickly. Here, too many immature red blood cells are produced in the bone marrow, leaving no room for normal blood cells.

Some leukaemia cells also ‘spill over’ into the bloodstream. These cells don’t mature and so don’t work properly, leading to an increased risk of infection.

Lisa embarked on four rounds of chemotherapy over five months.

‘She suffered side-effects such as sickness and lost her hair, but never once complained. Initially, she responded well and doctors were really pleased,’ says Simon.

A few days after her diagnosis, Lisa received the first of many transfusions, matched to her blood type, to ensure she could continue having chemotherapy.

After the fourth round of chemo, doctors declared the cancer was in remission. Lisa even made plans to run the London Marathon.

But the family’s joy was short-lived. Just two months later, she begin to feel wiped out. Then she discovered bruises on her arm — a classic sign of leukaemia, caused by a low level of platelets.

Close up view: Platelets are essential for many blood functions, and can become seriously depleted by chemotherapy

Close up view: Platelets are essential for many blood functions, and can become seriously depleted by chemotherapy

Blood tests confirmed their worst fears — the leukaemia was back. This time chemotherapy wouldn’t be enough; Lisa would need a bone marrow transplant. She embarked on another course of chemotherapy to minimise the cancer, giving the transplant the best chance of working. Again it was the platelet transfusions that kept her going.

But the chemotherapy didn’t work. The choice was stark: try again, with an even more gruelling course of chemo, or spend the time she had left with her family. Lisa decided not to go ahead with more treatment. Over the next three months, the family enjoyed quality time. Lisa had platelet and blood transfusions — as well as oral chemotherapy to slow down her deterioration.

‘We had weekends away and a wonderful holiday in Center Parcs to celebrate her 34th birthday on February 28. No longer having the most powerful chemotherapy drugs, Lisa looked well for the first time in months. She put on weight and her hair grew back.’

But just weeks later, she was getting frequent colds and infections. Lisa put together a ‘mummy manual’, with advice on everything from school to clothes, make-up and boys. She also made memory boxes that contained books she read with the girls and a favourite scarf.

‘Platelets kept Lisa well enough to
continue with chemo. But afterwards they kept her with me
just that little bit longer’ Simon Wilson

In April 2008, Lisa was admitted to hospital with a persistent chest infection. In the early hours of April 8, her breathing became shallower. As she took her last breath, a single tear rolled down her cheek.

Four years after her death, Simon juggles parenthood with work and fundraising for Leukaemia Research and Winston’s Wish, a childhood bereavement charity.

And on Sunday, the fourth anniversary of Lisa’s funeral, he ran the London Marathon in four hours and 32 minutes.

He also continues to donate platelets. ‘Platelets kept Lisa well enough to continue with chemo,’ he says. ‘But afterwards they kept her with me just that little bit longer. Without them she might not have seen her 34th birthday and would have spent more time in hospital away from us.

‘Platelets gave us precious time together as a family, which I treasure more than anything.’

To sponsor Simon, visit justgiving.com/simon2012. For more details on platelet donation, visit blood.co.uk/platelets