Are we soon to be universal blood donors?

Thanks to a recent groundbreaking discovery, we could all become universal blood donors regardless of our blood group.

Man has been aware of the fundamental importance of blood for many centuries. We know for a fact that blood transfusions between two individuals have been performed, although unsuccessfully, since the end of the 17th century. Fortunately, successful blood transfusions became possible when the Austrian Carl Landsteiner discovered the different blood groups, thereby the ABO system, in 1900.

There are four blood groups: A, B, AB and O. The letters A and B identify the antigens, or sugar molecules, naturally present on the surface of the red blood cells. The blood cells of people from groups A and B contain one of these two sugar molecules. People of the AB group have both types of sugar molecules on their red blood cells, while people of the O group have none at all.

The human body produces antibodies against the antigens it lacks. Hence, during a transfusion, the blood group of the donor and of the recipient must be absolutely identical or compatible, or the immune system of the recipient will react violently, endangering his or her life. Consequently, people of the AB blood group can only give blood to recipients of their own blood group. On the other hand, people who are O negative can give blood to anyone, that is to say, anyone in the groups O, A, B and AB. This distinction makes them the most “valuable” donors of all. We call them universal donors.

A new method to convert blood from all groups into universal blood could be the panacea the medical community has been searching for to counter the shortage of blood available for transfusion. Scientist have in fact developed a method to convert the blood of groups A, B and AB into O, which can then be safely transfused in all patients. The new technique uses enzymes that cut the sugar molecules from the surface of the red blood cells. In other words, researchers have successfully withdrawn the antigens A and B from the surface of the red blood cells.

For a transfusion, you not only need to take into account the blood group, but also the Rhesus factor, or Rh factor, be it positive or negative. However at this point, the new technique can do nothing to neutralize the Rhesus factor.

Many trials are needed to ensure the safety of this new blood conversion technique before it can be used in hospitals. For now, getting enough blood to meet the demands remains a daily challenge. So, when was the last time you gave blood? Contact your local Héma-Québec office to learn where you can give the gift of life!

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