As a reporter for a Palo Alto newspaper in the early 1980s, I interviewed Ed Engleman, MD, director of the Stanford Blood Center, about the blood center’s introduction of a novel HIV screening test, the first of its kind in the country.
Thirty years later, I revisited the test - and all the controversy surrounding it – as it would prove to be a landmark period in blood-banking history. What I discovered is detailed in a new story in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.
Fortunately I was able to plumb the memories of Engleman, who is still directing the blood center, as well as Herbert Perkins, MD, now 94, who directed the Irwin Memorial Blood Bank in San Francisco at the time. Because San Francisco was then an epicenter of the epidemic in the United States, Perkins was in the eye of the storm, trying to protect the blood supply while respecting the civil rights and privacy concerns of those in the gay community, where HIV was prevalent.
The debate about how to ensure the safety of blood supplies took place at a time when very little was known about HIV/AIDS. It was a true scientific mystery, with researchers speculating about the cause of this strange and deadly illness, which then had no name, and postulating about the potential for its spread through blood transfusion.
Another interesting perspective for the story came from Jeff Lifson, MD, now a leading AIDS researcher at the National Institutes of Health, who was a resident at Stanford working in Engleman’s lab during the crisis. He and Engleman both remembered the feeling of being ostracized by blood banking colleagues for introducing what they believed was - and what would later prove to be – a life-saving test.