2021 E. Donnall Thomas Lecture Recipient: Connie Westhoff, PhD
During this year’s annual meeting, Connie Westhoff, PhD, of the National Laboratory for Blood Group Genomics and Immunohematology and Genomics at the New York Blood Center will be awarded the 2021 E. Donnall Thomas Lecture and Prize in acknowledgment of her outstanding contributions to the field of transfusion medicine. Dr. Westhoff identified the Rh antigens, one of the most clinically significant blood group systems, as mammalian ammonia/ammonium transporters, and she demonstrated that the Rh mutation contributes to Rh incompatibility following blood transfusion. She also introduced faster, less labor intensive high-throughput DNA-based methods to genotype blood group antigens. In light of these advances, which have fundamentally changed and improved standard procedures in blood transfusion, Dr. Westhoff has been previously recognized with the Katherine Beattie Award from the Michigan Association of Blood Banks, and both the John Elliott Memorial Award and the Dale Smith Award for Innovation in Transfusion Medicine from AABB.
This lectureship and prize was established in 1992 and is named after the late Nobel Prize laureate and past president of ASH, E. Donnall Thomas, MD. Each year, it recognizes pioneering research achievements in hematology that represent a paradigm shift or significant discovery in the field.
Since the start of her career, Dr. Westhoff has placed her focus on making a difference for patients. While investigating blood transfusion incompatibility, she encountered patients who became sensitized and could not receive additional blood transfusion therapy. These observations, coupled with her interest in genetics, motivated Dr. Westhoff’s research career focus. “My research area merges genetics and transfusion medicine therapy,” she said, “with a specific focus on the genetic diversity of the Rh blood group system as the cause of incompatibilities during pregnancy and following blood transfusion.” Her work to change the way hematologists are able to genotype blood group antigens has been particularly important for patients in need of long-term transfusion support who are at a higher risk of alloimmunization.
When asked about her mentors her along the way Dr. Westhoff acknowledged how few women there were in the lab when she was a new researcher. “I loved laboratory science, which as a young woman in the 1970s, led to a degree that first took me to a hospital laboratory,” she said. “I was not aware that a career in research was possible.” Nevertheless, she would eventually go on to the University of Pennsylvania and the laboratory of Dr. Les Silberstein, who encouraged Dr. Westhoff to pursue her research interests. Today she notes the significant changes for women in hematology. “I have been privileged to witness, and participate in, mentoring the next generation of women,” she said.
Dr. Westhoff is excited for the field at present and cites recent developments in the use of genomics to type patients and donors. “The approach offers a more precise match for transfusion, especially for patients receiving chronic transfusion,” she said. Dr. Westhoff also described some current barriers, including “the financial challenges resulting from the lack of a direct link between transfusion therapy and reimbursement in the U.S. health care system.”