Dr Benjamin Kile of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne has found why the blood cells responsible for clotting—platelets—have a short shelf life at the blood bank.
There’s a molecular clock ticking away inside them that triggers their death. He’s also discovered a gene critical for the production of blood stem cells in our bone marrow that happens to be responsible for a range of cancers.
These major discoveries earned Ben the 2010 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. Now he is trying to use them to extend the life of blood bank products, and get to the heart of some of the big questions in cancer.
“Platelets don’t simply wear out,” Ben says. “They have a molecular clock counting down their life. And we’ve shown that, in mice, we can slow it down or speed it up.” The researchers might be able to do the same with human platelets, and extend their shelf life. But first they need to know why platelet survival is so tightly regulated.
Ben’s second important discovery came while he was investigating how platelets are made. He and his colleagues found a gene that regulates the development of blood stem cells. Without it, there is no blood. But surprisingly this gene, ERG, was already well known and had been implicated in many different cancers. “No one knew what its day job was,” Ben says. “It links our studies of blood stem cells and our studies of cancer.”