Saturday, 28 April 2012

Old blood and tissue may hold a lot of secrets


Some scientists get from their retiring mentors a small and symbolic gift: a book, a tool, a picture. In the late 1970s, Edward L. Kaplan got from his about 40,000 tubes of blood serum encased in a mass of ice that he said “looked like a wooly mammoth.”
The tubes contained blood samples from 9,000 airmen collected from 1948 to 1954 to study rheumatic fever, a disease that sidelined thousands of soldiers during World War II. A pediatrician at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Kaplan had an interest in rheumatic fever. But that wasn’t why he accepted the present.
Although this was long before the genomics revolution and the discovery of “biomarkers” for disease, Kaplan had a hunch that there were secrets waiting to be discovered inside the ice-encrusted tubes. He was right.
In 2000, the serum was used to help elucidate hepatitis C, a viral infection that was unknown when the blood was drawn. In 2009, it was used to shed light on celiac disease, an intestinal ailment that, unbeknown to them, 14 of the airmen had. Today, three decades after Kaplan’s rescue of it, the tubes are in the custody of the U.S. government, waiting for more researchers to ask them questions.
“This collection is priceless. It’s absolutely priceless,” the 76-year-old Kaplan said recently.

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