Since March 2019, I’ve had the great pleasure and honour of leading NHS Blood and Transplant as Chief Executive. It’s a special place to work for many reasons. But for me, it’s also personal. Why? Because I’m alive today thanks to a blood transfusion I received after the birthday of my second child. I don’t know who donated those pints of blood but I will be forever grateful to them and the thousands of people who come out to donate every day, saving and improving the lives of people in need.
About 10 years ago, I found myself in hospital again, but this time with my four year old daughter who – after an unexplained rash and high fever – was diagnosed with Kawasaki syndrome. I’d never heard of it before but soon learned that it’s very serious autoimmune disease. It presents as a medical emergency which can lead to long term heart disease and even death if not treated promptly.
The problem is that Kawasaki’s is difficult to diagnose. But we were lucky. The wonderful doctors at our local NHS Trust picked it up quickly, whisked her into hospital and started her on immunoglobulins – a plasma-derived medicine, which can stabilise the immune system and calm it down.
It was a long couple of days – or may even a week – before she started to recover. To be honest, I can’t remember how long we were in hospital as it was a blur of worry and fear. To this day, I can’t look back at the photos of her inflamed skin, cracked lips and listless body. I shudder when I think about the doctors telling me that we could be looking at long term heart damage.
But as I said, we were lucky. Today, when I watch all six feet tall of her running around the netball court – fit and healthy – I give thanks to the people whose plasma donations saved her life.
For more than 20 years, the immunoglobulins that saved my daughter could not be made from the plasma of UK donors, due to a precaution against variant CJD. As a result, the UK has had to rely on imported immunoglobulins, bought on the international market and manufactured from plasma collected overseas. This has left us exposed as a country to increases in global demand, as well as supply shocks. The recent pandemic, for example, has led to a dramatic fall in US plasma donations which account for more than half of the UK’s supplies.
The good news is that the government accepted MHRA advice that UK plasma could once again be used to manufacture immunoglobulins. Since then, NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) have been working with NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care on a programme to build a degree of national self-sufficiency in this critical life saving medicine.
The first donations were on April 7 2021, so we can now celebrate one year of taking these lifesaving donations.
To deliver at scale, and in the long term, we will need to develop a plasma donor base to stand alongside our existing blood donor base. I have no doubt that we can count on the altruism and generosity of the great British public to do this. We have permanent donor centres in Birmingham, Reading and Twickenham and – as the programme expands – we expect to open even more donor centres across the country. You can find out more and even register to donate at www.blood.co.uk.
As well as collecting plasma, we are also recovering it from whole blood donations. This will generate an additional 250,000 litres a year, making each blood donation even more valuable.
Our mission at NHSBT has always been to save and improve lives. This new plasma for medicine programme will allow us to save and improve even more lives in the years ahead. Lives like my daughter’s and the 17,000 other people in England who are treated with immunoglobulins every year.
I can’t wait for the day when the NHS takes receipt of the first delivery of immunoglobulins manufactured from domestic donations. This won’t be for a couple years as the supply chain is complex and NHS England first need to appoint a fractionator who can take the plasma we’ve collected and manufacture it into medicine.
By year five of this complex programme, however, we hope to be collecting enough plasma to achieve a degree of national self-sufficiency in immunoglobulins. That will help cover most of the demand from patients with ‘red’ indications – those for whom there are no alternative treatments.
I’m proud to see NHSBT collaborating with colleagues across the system and leveraging our unique national infrastructure and specialist capabilities to provide additional support to the NHS. This will not only strengthen national security of supply in this critical, life-saving medicine, but also take us closer to our vision of a world where every patient receives the donation they need.