Leading Hematologist

Marie-Claude Blais, VR08, directs one of Canada’s largest blood banks at the University of Montreal
a smiling individual with dark hair wearing a white lab coat and a stethoscope around their neck kneels next to a Dalmatian
Dr. Marie-Claude Blais, VR08, an expert in veterinary hematology, with 3-year-old Dalmatian, Tokyo. Photo: Christophe Dubé

When a dog or a cat in Canada needs blood, veterinarians across the country often turn to the University of Montreal’s Blood Bank, supervised by Dr. Marie-Claude Blais, VR08 (she/her), a professor at the University’s veterinary college. Blais is a former resident at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University’s Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals

From the start [of my Cummings School residency], I was respected for my knowledge and fortunate to find people there willing to listen to my ideas and implement them. This inspired me to continue learning.

Dr. Marie-Claude Blais, VR08

Located in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, the University Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is the only French-language veterinary college in North America. Its hospital is known in Canada as “Le Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vétérinaire” (CHUV).

Five years ago, the CHUV’s blood gathering, storage, and shipment operation joined forces with the Canadian Animal Blood Bank (CABB) to better serve all veterinarians. Together, the larger demand allows for a more rapid distribution, which is critical due to the expiration date for usable blood. “This merger reduced costs and increased the quality of the product we provide,” says Blais. “Every unit is tested by PCR for infectious disease and our size enables us to use leukofilters to remove white cells from the blood prior to transfusion, which is more expensive.”

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests diagnose certain infectious diseases and genetic changes, identifying the DNA or RNA of a pathogen (the cause of a disease) or abnormal cells. The size and scope of the operation enable the nonprofit organization to collect a vast amount of blood product on site, which it ships throughout Canada upon request.

A path to hematology
Born, raised, and educated in Montreal, Blais later earned a D.M.V. and completed an internship in veterinary clinical sciences at the University of Montreal. Fascinated from a young age by blood and how it can support life, she secured a post-doctoral fellowship in transfusion medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). While there, she documented a new blood type in dogs: DAL for “Dalmatian.”

Ginny Rentko, a Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine faculty member at the time, visited Penn. Rentko made a connection with Blais, which ultimately led her to pursue and obtain an internal medicine residency at Cummings School.

“I came to Tufts with a love for transfusion medicine and even though I was just a resident they were happy to learn from me and change things that they were doing,” says Blais. “From the start, I was respected for my knowledge and fortunate to find people there willing to listen to my ideas and implement them. This inspired me to continue learning.”

Among many individuals who helped Blais at Cummings School, she made a lasting connection with Drs. Liz Rozanski, associate professor, and Mary Labato, V83, clinical professor and associate chair, Department of Clinical Sciences.

Cummings School provides a unique opportunity for residents to develop and promote special interests. “Dr. Blais further developed her interest and skill in transfusion medicine here,” Rozanski explains. “She is currently regarded as one of the world’s experts in veterinary hematology and transfusion medicine and I like to think that Tufts played at least a small role in that.”

Labato considers Blais a friend and colleague. “As a resident, she offered suggestions to our clinical pathology lab for blood typing techniques,” Labato says. “Her passion for transfusion medicine and recognition of new blood type antigens have revolutionized the safety of providing transfusions to veterinary patients. I’m very happy to see the development of her career and international reputation.”

Among her ongoing contributions, Blais provides didactic lectures to Cummings School’s current residents, answers questions about challenging hematology cases, and encourages talented University of Montreal students to seek internships or externships at the School. 

In addition, she has helped to strengthen Cummings School’s Blood Bank, which administers blood-saving transfusions to dogs and cats almost daily.

Blais greatly appreciates what she gained during her residency. “I still use the connections I’ve made at Tufts, especially for research purposes,” she shares. Both Rozanski and Labato mentored Blais, during and after her residency. “They made my life easier in getting projects started and they provided positive reinforcement,” Blais says. “Their passion has driven me to stay in academia and pursue research.”

Centering her research activities on internal medicine and veterinary hematology, Blais has published numerous papers and presented widely in her field.

The CHUV’s Blood Bank at the University of Montreal
The CHUV’s Blood Bank addresses the blood product needs of nearly all veterinary clinics in Quebec and most of Ontario, while CABB services the rest. Overall, the two entities collect more than 2,000 blood donations annually. While on-site each year, the CHUV administers about 100 transfusions in dogs and 50 in cats. “It’s a small percentage of the animals we serve,” says Blais. 

In addition, the CHUV provides a unique teaching opportunity, training about 80 veterinary students annually to administer blood transfusions. “We have a rotation in the Blood Bank, so two or three students at a time will join us on a blood drive and learn the process,” she says.

Improving service to clients through blood research
Although she has been researching for over 10 years to find out more about blood compatibility, Blais admits there’s more to learn. “We’re seeking to discover blood groups in dogs and cats,” she explains. “We’re still at the beginning of that and hope to make significant progress over the next few years.”

Through the CHUV Blood Bank’s collaboration, Blais has access to veterinary transfusion information throughout Canada, which aids her clinical research. Banking blood is much easier for dogs, but major challenges exist for cats, she says. “The AB blood group system in cats is well defined, but we know they have more blood groups and everything outside of that system is undefined.”

During an upcoming sabbatical, Blais hopes to focus her research to address this area. “I want to help us better understand the blood compatibility issues on the cellular level while making blood collection easier and providing easier access to feline blood products.”

Cats are smaller than dogs and comparatively less willing to donate blood. “We are not yet providing feline blood outside of our facility, because it’s too tough,” Blais says. She hopes to travel and see how other blood banks are doing it, to improve collection methods and determine the best way to approach and persuade owners to have their cats donate.

Despite the demands of a busy career, Blais has prioritized a steady work/life balance. She and her husband, Hughes Provencher, are the proud parents of “curious and fun” daughters Laetitia (13) and Annabelle (11). “It’s always a challenge to be as good at work as you are at home,” she says. “I believe that my most important work is still at home with my daughters, and I hope that they’ll love their career as much as I love mine.”