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On Platelets, Road Warrior, Kobe Bryant, and Modern Medicine

Around a dozen years ago a good friend of mine contracted Leukemia. He underwent several severe rounds of chemotherapy at UCLA and the call went out to friends and family to donate both whole blood and "platelets" in an effort to help him stave off or even cure the disease. Platelets or "thrombocytes" are tiny blood cells that have long been known to be critical elements in healing and growth of the human body tissue.

For some reason my friend responded particularly well to my platelets and over the next ten months I spent a dozen or so mornings in the hospital tied up to a machine that would siphon blood out of one arm, centrifuge out platelet-rich plasma and replace the (platelet-free) blood back through the other arm. For me, the process was strange, uncomfortable, and pretty boring. You had to sit in a kind of lounge chair with needles in both arms (some times in the big veins in the back of my hands) for hours until the machine had produced enough material to make the process worthwhile. The hospital had a VCR and a TV rigged up over the chair so the donator could watch movies. I'd bring my own copy of "Road Warrior". I watched it at least a dozen times. It was and still is my favorite movie. I love that movie. I love it more because it reminds me that I was able to give my friend this one gift... this one thing: Magic cells from my blood that may or may not save his life.

Unfortunately, the process failed. My friend was dead within a year, and my arms (which the nurses swore at repeatedly for their tiny and deep veins) wound up covered in hematoma that took years to heal. I was proud of those scars, and missed them when they finally disappeared.

That's it. That's the extent of my knowledge of platelet therapy... that sometimes it can cure cancer in the blood. But there are a lot of other uses for platelets and they're becoming quite a big deal... especially in sports medicine. Follow these blue words to a Grantland article by Jonah Lehrer which covers some of the burgeoning medical techniques collectively known as "biologic therapy". They include the process known as "Regenokene"... which is what Kobe Bryant had done in Germany last off-season, and the more conventional (and U.S.-legal) "platelet rich plasma therapy" (PRP). It's interesting, unproven, and pretty radical stuff...