Dr. Jose Cancelas: Hoxworth Director, Researcher, & Blood Donor

A physician, a professor, and a world-recognized leader in research walk into a room. 

This may sound like the opening line of a joke, but in reality, it’s simply a description of one person: Jose Cancelas, MD PhD, who walks into the Hoxworth Central building in the early hours of the morning nearly every day.

The director of Hoxworth Blood Center since 2018, the dedicated leader of the Hoxworth research division, and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Dr. Cancelas boasts an impressive resume. A prolific researcher, he has published more than 170 peer-reviewed manuscripts. His laboratory is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the United States Department of Defense, and several different private foundations and corporations. He has trained over 40 MD, MD PhD, and PhD professionals who work in oncology and transfusion medicine programs across the world.  He is, in a word, remarkable (though he might shrug off that praise).

Dr. Cancelas holds many titles, but one that he is especially proud to hold is that of “blood donor”—especially because he has just been able to resume donating for the first time in more than 20 years. 

Jose Cancelas, MD, PhD, Director of University of Cincinnati (UC) Hoxworth Blood Center

In his native Spain, Dr. Cancelas had been donating since he was a young man. “I donated for first time in the summer of 1983 at the Fraternity of Blood Donors of Madrid, Spain—a whole blood donation,” he remembers. “They told me that my platelets and plasma were good for patient therapy.  I was 18 years old, and about to start medical school. I was really eager to help patients in need!”

Throughout medical school and beyond, Dr. Cancelas was a regular blood donor, giving around 50 units of whole blood between 1983 and 1997. Unfortunately, when he left Spain to come to Cincinnati, his illustrious career as a blood donor was cut short, due to FDA regulations that prevented residents of Europe from donating blood within the United States. 

Though he was no longer able to donate himself, blood banking was still a major part of his life. Indeed, his move to Cincinnati led to transfusion medicine becoming a critical part of his career.  

“I came to Cincinnati to continue my research career,” Dr. Cancelas says. “I was unsure about what was going to be my path—my initial intention was just to further learn from great scientists in Cincinnati. I learned that Hoxworth Blood Center was looking for clinical blood banking and transfusion medicine fellows, and I became aware of the great history of Hoxworth Blood Center. In addition, Dr. Ronald Sacher, who had arrived one year earlier to lead Hoxworth Blood Center, was inspiring. I decided to try to further expand my knowledge in transfusion medicine while doing research in Cincinnati Children's Hospital.”

The rest, he says, is history—he has maintained his dual affiliation with Hoxworth and with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital since 2002, “and I am very proud of it. I keep doing research because innovation is needed to further help patients in need.  Innovative medical research is the key to reduce patient suffering and I try to dedicate my efforts to modestly contribute to this noble goal.”

Over the last 20 years, Dr. Cancelas has played an integral role in groundbreaking research projects and built a reputation for excellence in the field of transfusion medicine—but he missed being able to give blood himself. Blood donors, he insists, are the critical piece when it comes to saving lives. 

“It is heartbreaking when one receives a call indicating we are short of blood or platelets for patients in need in our community, and feel impotence,” he says. “All my medical knowledge is useless in situations of short supply. I want to contribute to prevent these situations of seasonal shortage…there is no substitute for blood donations.”

Dr. Cancelas was even in the position of receiving blood products several years ago, in 2015, so he knows firsthand how important it is to maintain a stable supply of blood for patients in need.  When he began bleeding internally into his abdominal cavity, he was transfused with two units of donated red cells.  The effects, he says, were nearly instantaneous.

“My hemoglobin level stopped dropping and I could stand up instead of being bedridden,” he recalls.  “One day after the transfusion, I was discharged from the hospital. While my condition never reached life threatening, my family and I were extremely thankful to those donated blood units and the donors behind them.”

Dr. Jose Cancelas donating platelets, holding a "I completed the #FillTheBag Challenge" sign

Having been on the receiving end of healing blood products, he said, made his first donation in the United States that much more meaningful. After years of waiting, Dr. Cancelas was thrilled when the FDA made significant changes to the deferral guidelines that had prevented him from donating for so long. As soon as he was able, he made his first donation in more than 20 years in December of 2020, giving platelets at Hoxworth North.

“My first platelet donation was one the happiest days of my life since I came to America,” he says. “I felt integrated in the community and useful to the patients in need. I know that my blood is saving lives.” 

That’s saying something, considering that Dr. Cancelas has had a number of memorable experiences and proud moments during his time in Cincinnati: “There have been many,” he says. “First when I published my first major study, then when I got my first grant supporting my research, when I got the Business Courier Innovator Award, and many more.”

“However, the best moments are when I discuss a clinical research trial or a research project with my group members,” he adds. “When they show me data on safety, efficacy or proof-of-concept of a new approach to help patients in need. These are the best moments.”

More of these moments are likely coming, he says. While he doesn’t expect the need for donated blood products to wane in the near future, Cancelas is excited about what is to come in the field of blood banking and the role that Hoxworth will play in that research, especially the areas of “immunotherapy, gene therapy and regenerative medicine.”

“Donors can donate cells that can be modified to destroy cancer cells, cure inborn errors or make tissues in patients with degenerative diseases,” he explains. “This is not science fiction any longer. It is what we support every day with our partners in the hospitals we serve in Cincinnati.”

In the meantime, he says, he’ll continue to donate in order to support the needs of area patients, and he’s hopeful that other members of the community will join him.  Donating blood can be daunting to someone who has never done it before, he admits, but the results are worth it.

“I understand the fear…It is not a happy moment to be stuck with a needle. It is not a Magic Disney moment,” he says. “However, I would suggest everyone try once in their lives. The first donation may be the one that changes their lives and engage them with their own community. It is very gratifying to know that on the other side of our arm is a patient who suffers and will benefit from our gift of life.”

And to the donors who continue to support Hoxworth’s mission of saving lives, he has a few simple words:

“Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!”