Scientists at Vitalant, one of the major blood donation centers in the nation, say there’s a lot of unmet medical need due to a shortage of blood.
In response, the company is working with other major blood donor centers and the FDA to figure out how to increase the blood supply.
Blood donor centers are turning to a group that historically faced barriers to donating: men who have sex with men.
Dr. Brian Custer is a scientist working on the project.
“We need to attract and retain blood donors. So which of course, one of the major things that's changed is we no longer do frequently mobile tries. We used to go to things like schools and universities, and we're starting to do that again," Custer said. "But of course, for the last year and a half, we haven't been able to do that.”
Eligibility to donate blood expanded during the pandemic. For many members of the LGBTQ+ community, there was a deferral process before they could give blood.
That meant they had to wait a year after being intimate with someone in order to donate blood but because of the pandemic that deferral period was reduced to three months. Now scientists are working to abolish that time frame for men who have sex with men.
“The advance study started planning a long time ago, actually several years ago, when there was a twelve month deferral for men who have sex with men. And at that time, that was recognized as clearly not being an appropriate policy, meaning that is asking people to a certain group of people to have a different set of rules. So at the inception, the advanced study was intended to again change and collect data that could permit us to change the rules,” said Custer.
The study would include around two thousand participants, who would receive a questionnaire before getting their blood tested.
“We are using the combination of your answers on these test questions that might be on the donor registry questionnaire and the actual testing that we do on the blood samples to figure out are there groups that do have lower risk and don't have any evidence of HIV infection,” explained Custer.
Scientists reached out to many local LGBTQ organizations and did outreach in the community, including to other groups like local sports leagues, to participate in the study.
“It's been very great source for participants," Custer said, mentioning that tennis players, softball players, dodgeball players and other sports league members are able to get involved.
The pandemic delayed the study, but Dr. Custer says they expect to continue the study for the next three to four months. Vitalant expects to hear back from the FDA by around 2023.
The study will include participants in eight different cities.
Other blood donor eligibility requirements include age, weight and height ratios, and whether someone has traveled to a place with an endemic, like malaria.