Lifetime Achievement Award:
Dr. Richard Aster, Senior investigator, BloodCenter of Wisconsin
Dr. Richard Aster’s curriculum vitae is 46 pages long.
It chronicles a six-decade-long career that has included fellowships, international lectureships and visiting professorships, military and federal service, and a lengthy bibliography of the more than 300 scientific papers he has authored.
Aster, who formerly led what is today known as Versiti BloodCenter of Wisconsin and is now senior investigator of its Versiti Blood Research Institute, has dedicated his career to the study of platelets and the body’s immune reaction to them. His advancements in transfusion medicine have included matching of platelets for transfusion, molecular properties of platelet antigens, and pathogenesis of drug-induced immune thrombocytopenia, a condition characterized by abnormally low levels of platelets.
Reflecting on his career, Aster describes it as being punctuated by a steady progression of developments, rather than revelatory breakthroughs.
“All you try to do is make a little progress every day,” he said. “Sometimes it all adds up to something meaningful. That’s how most research is done. You don’t have breakthroughs; you just keep plugging away and learn more about the areas you’re interested in and see if it adds up to something in the long run.”
For his accomplishments, Aster received a Lifetime Achievement Award as part of BizTimes Media’s annual Health Care Heroes Awards program.
“Dr. Aster is a giant in the field of transfusion medicine and hematology,” said Gilbert White, executive vice president of research at Versiti and director of the Blood Research Institute in Wauwatosa. “From fundamental discoveries in his research lab to being an early advocate for tissue typing in transplantation to the organization of America’s Blood Centers, he has had an enormous impact in his field.”
Prior to coming to Milwaukee, Aster had a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and served as a faculty member and researcher at the Thorndike Memorial Laboratory at Harvard Medical School. It was his stint at the NIH that cultivated an interest in blood banking.
“I was always intrigued by the possibilities: that a blood center can, in some ways, be an ideal location or environment for certain types of hematology,” Aster said.
Aster joined the BloodCenter, then known as the Blood Center of Southeastern Wisconsin Inc., as its executive director from 1970 to 1975 and served as president from 1975 to 1996. He’s been a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin throughout his tenure.
Aster’s research in the 1980s pioneered the first marrow transplant to a leukemia patient from an unrelated donor, which led to the establishment of a national program to recruit marrow donors. Called the National Marrow Donor Program, it currently has 16 million donors in its registry.
Aster was also a co-founder of the BloodCenter Research Foundation, which provides an endowment to support research that can’t be funded solely by grants, and the Great Lakes Hemophilia Foundation.
In 1985, Aster was involved in founding GTI Diagnostics, a for-profit subsidiary of the Blood Research Institute that focused on the transplantation, blood bank and specialty coagulation markets. It was sold in 2008.
Aster has one of the longest-running, fully-funded National Institutes of Health research grants, which was issued in 1970 and continues today.
“It’s been going for 49-plus years now,” he said. “It’s made it possible for us to do some interesting things at the BloodCenter over the last 50 years or so.”
Since 1996, Aster has served as senior investigator with the Blood Research Institute.
During his long tenure with the organization, Aster has seen it grow from a 95-employee blood center serving southeastern Wisconsin to a 900-employee operation that provides blood services, as well as organ, tissue and marrow donation, diagnostic testing, medical services and research.
Aster said advancements don’t result from a single individual working in isolation, but rather from a team of committed researchers.
“That’s why we’re fortunate to have the Blood Research Institute, where we can exchange ideas and techniques and talents and provide support services and specialty laboratories that can do testing for all the investigators,” he said. “Without that kind of milieu, no one could do meaningful work these days. We’re fortunate to have that resource.”