Winter 2016

Banking Bird Blood

Finding a way to safely store avian blood types would save more patients

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An electron micrograph of red blood cells from a chicken. Image: Jennifer Graham

Even birds sometimes need a life-saving blood transfusion, but the species’ rapid-fire metabolism makes it difficult to keep lots of avian blood types on hand. “You can’t store avian blood the way you do for people, dogs and cats” because of that fast metabolism, says Jennifer Graham, a zoological companion animal veterinarian at Cummings School.

The stored avian blood cells “turn over so quickly that they go through a lot of changes,” she says. Some studies have found that potassium levels in stored avian blood rise so quickly that using the blood in a transfusion would be lethal. And so avian veterinarians use fresh blood for transfusions, ideally from the same species—and there are more than 10,000 of those in the world.

If veterinarians could solve the storage problem, more avian patients could be saved, says Graham, who is researching ways to safely bank bird blood.

Stored avian blood cells “turn over so quickly that they go through a lot of changes.”

The solution could come from both human and veterinary medicine. Graham and her colleagues investigated several potential bird blood preservatives, including hydroxyethyl starch, a substance that is used to store human and canine red blood cells. For their research, the scientists took red blood cells from healthy chickens and froze them quickly, and then slowly. To preserve the cells, they compared the effectiveness of various concentrations of hydroxyethyl starch and two other preservatives, glycerol and dimethyl sulfoxide.

While the hydroxyethyl starch was not the ideal avian blood preservative—the red blood cells began to die and would likely continue to do so after a transfusion, Graham says—certain solutions of both the dimethyl sulfoxide and the glycerol maintained the cells’ viability after thawing, according to their findings, published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research in June 2015. The work was funded by the Morris Animal Foundation.

The researchers plan to continue studying these preservatives to get a better sense of how well they preserve the blood, and for how long, as well as their safety for avian transfusions.

At Cummings School, Graham estimates that banked blood could help at least one avian patient a month—from hawks that have eaten mice tainted with blood-thinning rat poison and pet birds that have ingested zinc or lead from gnawing on metal cages to trauma cases, such as a recent patient of Graham’s, a hemorrhaging cockatoo whose wing was ripped off by a raccoon.

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