UBC researchers have found a way to make all donated blood universal



A new discovery by a group of UBC researchers could make blood transfusions easier in the future.

Bruce Edwards / Post media News

Researchers at the University of B.C. think they have found a way to transform every type of human blood into the universally usable type-O-negative.

This would make blood transfusions much easier, since donor and patient blood groups usually must agree unless the blood of the donor is type-O negative. The use of type O negative blood in transfusions does not lead to dangerous, potentially life-threatening reactions to the patient.

According to Canadian Blood Services, about 7 percent of Canadians have type-O negative blood.

Because of the universality of the type-O-negative, it is useful in emergency operations, for example when there is no time to test for a patient's blood group.

The UBC researchers say that a "powerful" group of enzymes in intestinal bacteria is capable of transforming blood into type-O-negative by removing antigens from red blood cells.

"Blood group is determined by the presence of antigens on the surface of red blood cells, type A blood has the A antigen, B has the B antigen, AB blood has both antigens and O blood does not have blood," UBC chemistry professor Stephen Withers said in a press release. "Antigens can cause an immune response if they are foreign to the body, so transfusion patients must either receive their own blood type or type O to prevent a reaction, which is why O blood is so important."

Withers and his team developed enzymes that were able to remove antigens, but this new species is much more powerful and efficient.

"Researchers have already studied the use of enzymes to change blood as early as 1982," he said. "However, these new enzymes can do the job 30 times better."

After looking at millions of microorganisms, they have established that the environment in which the desired enzymes can be found is the mucosal lining of the human intestine, which contains sugars structurally similar to blood antigens.

"By hooking up on the bacteria that fed on those sugars, we isolated the enzymes that the bacteria use to remove the sugar molecules," adds Withers. "We then produced quantities of those enzymes through cloning and discovered that they were able to perform a similar action on blood antigens."

Withers and his colleagues – UBC microbiologist Steven Hallam and pathologist Jay Kizhakkedathu from UBC's Center for Blood Research – apply for a patent on the new enzymes and hope to be able to test them on a larger scale in the future, in preparation on clinical tests.

Canadian Blood Services recently made a call for blood donors, because their stock, especially in rarer species, is too low. Withers noted that this discovery could alleviate such pressures in the future.

"Expanding global blood supply is critical in light of the growing population and the frequency of natural disasters," he said. "Our hope is that one day we can make every type of donor blood, tissues or organs safe for everyone, regardless of their blood type."

The study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, was presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston.

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