AABB History: Embracing New Paradigms in the 1990s

July 19, 2022

This article first appeared in AABB News, an AABB member benefit.

“We look forward to the challenges and the successes ahead as we continue to be the organization that is respected worldwide for its expertise. . . This is yet one more reason I am proud to be a member of AABB.” Consciously or not, AABB President (1996-97) Dennis M. Smith Jr, MD, touched upon several key themes that ran through the 1990s for AABB and its members—namely, challenge, success, respect, worldwide and expertise.

The World Around Us
Despite the armed conflicts (Bosnia, Rwanda, Persian Gulf), or perhaps because of them, many of the events that occurred during the 1990s were focused on the extraterrestrial—launch of the Hubble telescope, docking of the U.S. Space Shuttle at the Soviet Space Station, the closest approach of the Hale-Bopp comet, to name a few. Advances in technology also became part of our lives—the Internet available for unrestricted commercial use, creation of the Google search engine, completion of the Channel Tunnel between England and France, successful cloning of a mammal (“Dolly,” the sheep), and, yes, let’s not forget the development of Viagra. The decade was also marked by the reunification of Germany, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and election as president of South Africa, creation of the European Union and debut of the euro, devastating hurricanes in Florida (Andrew) and Central America (Mitch), and the untimely death of Princess Diana.

Paradigm Shifts at AABB
Looking back now, it may seem almost impossible, but during this one decade, AABB and its members experienced not one or two, but four major shifts in our way of thinking about the Association and the professionals working in this particular health care segment.

Quality Systems
The concept that quality should not be inspected/detected at the end of a process, but built-in and prevented at every stage was not created by AABB. However, AABB embraced the ideas promoted by the ISO 9000 system of quality management in a bold move that percolated throughout the profession. Beginning with AABB standards-setting, the concept and framework of the AABB Quality System Essentials percolated through all activities, including accreditation, of course, but also education, regulatory affairs, communications, governance and staff interactions. It was a “heavy lift” for some members, so AABB provided tools, training and time to aid in meeting the implementation challenges.

Cellular Therapy
Another shift in AABB perceptions occurred when the Association embraced cellular therapy as key to its future. As AABB President Edward L. Snyder, MD, noted, “The AABB Board and I believe that the AABB’s future will best be served by participating fully in hematopoietic progenitor cell activities as they evolve.” This initiative was more than the inclusion of marrow transplantation as a topic for educational sessions, publications, conferences and other Association activities, which had been ongoing for years.

This expansion of the AABB “umbrella” meant an investment in building out a full program, earmarking the necessary resources, collaborating with new industry partners and sister societies and discovering the nuances of the regulatory scene. Above all, it was important that cellular therapies become fully integrated with existing member services and programs, because even as the paradigm began to shift, more than 800 individual and institutional members self-identified as participating fully in hematopoietic progenitor cell and cord blood activities. [Spoiler alert: The paradigm is shifting again to biotherapies!]

Sometimes, it is hard to remember a world without the Internet, email, PDFs, massive databases and computer-assisted everything. AABB’s success in embracing these innovations is quite evident. Communication with and among members is more timely and less costly with digital options; locating information sought by members, allied professionals and the public is much easier thanks to the website; and networking among colleagues has continued to keep our community connected.

However, there were also “behind-the-scenes” uses of technology that may not be so evident. For instance, researchers around the world today can use technology to collaborate in real-time to investigate and resolve dilemmas; it was more difficult before the 1990s. The technology-driven ISBT 128 system for universal product labeling enabled the sharing of products across borders in times of disaster response and shortages. The hemovigilance systems that evolved in the 1990s were made possible, in part, by the power of computerized data collection and timely reporting of trends.

International Focus
A fourth major development during the decade was the AABB’s growth into a truly international organization. From its earliest days, the AABB was U.S.-based, but welcomed members from other countries, availed itself of opportunities to engage with colleagues from throughout the world, and shared its expertise in collaboration with other societies that sought assistance. But the 1990s saw a change in the collective consciousness of the Association—a deeper understanding of its role on the international stage. For example, not only were international attendees at the Annual Meeting welcomed, appreciated, and assisted, but they also were recruited to speak as respected faculty members for the sessions.

The decade witnessed other proactive efforts reflecting the change in mindset. By 1998, AABB News Briefs was informing members of the shift taking place:

  • Continued commitment to international initiatives already under way.
  • Increased international member access and involvement in AABB educational opportunities, committee participation, and member communication vehicles.
  • Increased Annual Meeting efforts (special international attendee events, translated presentations).
  • Leveraging technology (ie, Internet).
  • International Relations Committee = informational and advisory resource.

In conference rooms in Bethesda and elsewhere, the discussions were starting about a possible name change to remove the limiting “American” label.

Preparing for a New Century
All the turmoil of changes (yes, there was turmoil) in the 1990s were in a way the signal of one era ending and another beginning. AABB celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1997. It was a time of reflection on a half-century of amazing growth and maturation. Yet it was also a time of preparation for things just over the horizon. Consciously or unconsciously, AABB in the 1990s was laying a foundation for meeting the future needs of its members—embracing quality systems, cellular therapies, technological advances, and international involvement. How fitting that is for the final decade of a century that opened with Landsteiner’s discovery.