Blood cell processor
IBM reimagined the blood transfusion process, saved untold lives, and changed an industry’s outlook
Greatly enlarged illustration of blood cells floating against a dark background

Blood cell processors emerged from a technique developed in 1950 that enabled blood to be frozen and stored for the first time. Pioneered in England, it involved separating white blood cells and plasma and adding glycerol to packed red blood cells to preserve their structure at low temperatures. While the method was considered a breakthrough, the expense and time required to manually remove the glycerol after thawing limited its practical application — until two decades later, when the IBM 2991 automated the routine and radically changed blood transfusions for the better. 

The IBM 2991 came about thanks to the curiosity of IBM engineer George Judson, who would later become an IBM Fellow, and his willingness to lead the company into a wholly new field. Judson started exploring blood technology in the early 1960s after his son was stricken by leukemia. On trips to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), he witnessed the laborious process of separating and replacing a patient’s diseased white blood cells. He and Emil Freireich, now considered the father of modern clinical cancer research, discussed whether it might be possible to extract the white blood cells in a more continuous, mechanized manner.

After a year of exploration, with Freireich serving as a consultant, NCI issued a grant to fully develop what would become the NCI-IBM 2990 Blood Cell Separator. It routed a patient’s blood through a small centrifuge, which removed white cells and returned the rest to the patient in a continuous flow. The basic production model was finished in 1965 and shipped two years later. Upon seeing the device, the director of the American Red Cross Blood Services program offered another challenge. If a similar machine could be developed to remove glycerol from packed red cells, it would have far-reaching effects on blood transfusions.

Judson took up the cause and unveiled the IBM 2991 at the American Association of Blood Banks in Washington, DC, in 1972.

Blood washing

Before the IBM 2991, blood transfusions primarily comprised refrigerated whole blood, which was inefficient for a few reasons. Refrigerated blood is highly perishable. It needs to be used within three weeks, and it develops microaggregates, which can cause adverse reactions. Its perishability also worsens imbalances of supply and demand, especially in times of crisis. Moreover, many patients didn’t actually need whole blood. Their bodies only required the oxygen supplied by red cells.

Frozen packs of red blood cells held the promise to greatly increase storage capacity and extend the blood supply, since frozen blood retains its usefulness for two years or more. Judson developed a similar centrifuge process to more efficiently remove the glycerol. Over the course of several minutes, it washed the preservatives away in an automated process that cost a third less.

Subsequent versions of the machine developed the capability to wash the packed red cells of any remaining white cells, plasma and platelets, thereby lessening the risks of adverse reactions and post-transfusion hepatitis. Over time, blood cell separators would enable doctors to isolate any component from a donor’s blood as it was being drawn and return the other components to the donor.

Breaking into a new market

The first IBM 2991 was installed in the reference laboratory of Blood Services in Scottsdale, Arizona, the largest network of nonprofit community blood centers in the US, serving more than 900 hospitals and 14 million Americans. “We think IBM has produced a superb piece of equipment,” John B. Alsever, vice president at Blood Services, said at the time. “The demand for frozen blood is increasing rapidly, and the IBM blood cell processor does a superior job of washing thawed blood.”

From there, a small team in IBM’s Information Records Division, members of which had spent most of their careers in punched cards, set out to expand the market. “We’re going into medical technology in the same way IBM went into other new marketing areas,” said Larry Myrick, manager of the blood cell processor group in Dayton, New Jersey, “with a quality product supported by the very best in service and technical assistance.”

A caravan of 26-foot-long motor homes, each with two beds and a kitchen, toured the machines around the country. Salespeople would sleep in motels four or five nights a week and set up makeshift demonstrations in the parking lots of hospitals, the Red Cross, nonprofits, commercial blood banks and pharmaceutical firms. “It was rough going at first,” a salesman named Bill Macnamara told THINK magazine in 1978. “I’d walk into a hospital and say, ‘Hi, I’m from IBM.’ And the doctor would say, ‘Fine, but we don’t need any typewriters.’ Then I’d tell him why I was there, and he’d ask a million questions.”

Research soon indicated that washing blood didn’t just accelerate the glycerol-removal process. It also reduced the chances of allergic reactions and fevers. As this realization grew, so did sales. The roving salespeople suddenly found their demonstrations surrounded by gawking administrators, doctors and technicians, and the machine, priced from USD 10,000 to USD 17,000, would all but sell itself.

I’d walk into a hospital and say, ‘Hi, I’m from IBM.’ And the doctor would say, ‘Fine, but we don’t need any typewriters.’ Then I’d tell him why I was there, and he’d ask a million questions. Bill Macnamara IBM salesman
The legacy lives on

In 1984, IBM Biomedical Systems announced the sale of IBM’s blood-processing equipment assets to Cobe Laboratories. Many of the systems, now known as the COBE 2991 Cell Processor, are still in use at blood banks, hospitals and laboratories around the world.

Modern blood therapy has saved untold lives and reduced copious amounts of waste since the advent of the 2991. It also provided its inventor his life’s defining work.

“I was given the opportunity to pursue my interests in the field of blood cell separation, and I am truly grateful,” Judson said in a talk shortly before his retirement. “I hope we have not only benefited the medical profession, but have opened up a new field of endeavor for IBM.”

I hope we have not only benefited the medical profession, but have opened up a new field of endeavor for IBM George Judson IBM Fellow
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