Judith Baker knows blood.
For the past 20 years, the UCLA employee has directed the federal hemophilia treatment center network for Region IX, currently based in the pediatric hematology/oncology division of the David Geffen School of Medicine. She oversees 14 centers in California, Guam, Hawaii and Nevada that provide a spectrum of services to help children and adults with hemophilia live longer, healthier lives.
Now the government has tapped Baker for a brand new role: as the sole consumer advocate advising the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., on two committees charged with evaluating U.S. policies to protect the nation’s blood supply.
Her new job, which she does alongside her demanding UCLA job for a stipend and travel expenses, keeps Baker on the run between coasts. “I am a workaholic!” she said, using the time she waits at airports and hours spent on planes to keep working, accessing the UCLA network and checking her e-mail.
As a consumer watchdog safeguarding the country’s blood supply, Baker operates on the frontline of many critical health issues. In October, she met with a select group of physicians and researchers to weigh the threat of contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of mad cow disease, through blood transfusions. Recent U.K. cases have raised questions about the current U.S. policy.
Then last month, Baker helped another committee evaluate screening and deferral policies for prospective blood donors with a history of prostate cancer or chronic fatigue syndrome. Researchers have identified a new virus in some of these patients that is not detectable by all laboratories.
“These FDA committees draw on my expertise in hemophilia to examine potential new threats to the U.S. blood supply,” explained Baker, a Detroit native who joined UCLA in 2006. “We look at issues affecting blood safety, the availability of donated blood for those who need it and federal policy regulating blood products.”
The FDA’s decision to rely on consumer advocates grew out of the blood supply’s contamination with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the late 1970s.
That had catastrophic consequences, especially for hemophiliacs who rely on transfusions. In the United States alone, HIV infected more than half of all hemophiliacs. Many of these 8,000 people inadvertently infected their sexual partners. Some 12,000 children and adults receiving blood transfusions were also infected before physicians and researchers unraveled the deadly nature of HIV and how it was transmitted.
The tragedy proved a game changer for the way that the FDA does business with agencies at all levels of government.
“Now FDA advisory committees hold open meetings, invite consumer and patient representatives and keep strict conflict-of-interest guidelines,” said Baker. “Meeting agendas, transcripts and details about FDA roles and responsibilities are posted on the Web for everyone to read. Blood safety policy-making has become more coordinated, industry-independent and transparent to the public.“
When she’s not at work in Westwood or in D.C., Baker is a first-year doctoral student at the UCLA School of Public Health, where she is specializing in health services. In her spare time, she trains to run half-marathons, enjoys hiking and backpacking, and spends time with her 25-year-old son, Daniel, who earned his undergraduate degree from UCLA.
"UCLA is very pleased that the FDA chose Judith to serve on its advisory committee for blood safety,” said Dr. Kathleen Sakamoto, chief of the division. "Her input will help the nation supply patients with the safest blood products and act proactively to prevent transfusion-related complications."