Could universal donor blood be possible with this method?

Could there be a way to convert all blood types into a universal blood type? Researchers say we are close.
Could there be a way to convert all blood types into a universal blood type? Researchers say we are close.

Blood donation and blood banks in South Africa are crucial to help people in emergencies, during operations where large amounts of blood are required, or for those with anaemia in need of a blood transfusion.

Even though blood donation is such a simple procedure, South African blood banks often suffer from shortages.

On top of that, recipients can’t just receive any blood – the blood of the patient and that of the donor need to be compatible.

But could there be a way to transform all blood into universal donor blood? Researchers say that this might be a way to overcome blood shortages in the future.

Why must donor blood be compatible with the recipient?

People usually have one of four blood types (A, B, AB, or O). Your blood type is defined by the sugar molecules on the surface of the red blood cells, and by the presence and absence of certain antigens.

When the blood type doesn’t match that of the recipient, it can lead to the recipient’s immune system attacking the transfused blood – which can be deadly.

Presently, type O blood lacks antigens, making this the closest to a “universal” blood type. But even this can be problematic as there may not always be enough O type blood in stock.

How a universal blood type may be created

Researchers from the University of British Columbia analysed bacteria in the human gut and discovered microbes that produce two enzymes that can convert Type A blood into something more universal, according to reports.

According to a previous press release, researchers had been searching far and wide for such enzymes, until they happened to examine the gut bacteria in humans.

In simple terms, the two enzymes found in gut bacteria strip the sugars from red blood cell surfaces, converting them to a universal blood type that can safely be used by anyone.

The results of this study was published two days ago (10 June 2019) in the journal Nature Microbiology.

“This is a first, and if these data can be replicated, it is certainly a major advance,” says Harvey Klein, a blood transfusion expert at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, who was not involved with the work.

Is this the future?

According to the reports, the team of researchers are currently double-checking their findings and need to test the enzymes in a clinical setting, which will help determine whether blood can safely be converted.

Of course this will take some time, but researcher Stephen Withers, as well as other blood specialists, is optimistic that this could be the breakthrough the blood donation process so badly needs.

The current situation

Currently, fewer than 1% of South Africans are active blood donors and we only have enough stock for five days. The South African National Blood Service (SANBS) is therefore urgently calling on South Africans to donate blood.

It's a misconception that, if you are blood type O, your blood is not needed as much because it’s a common blood type. This may cause people with blood type O to stay away from blood drives, while their blood is actually crucial. 

Visit the SANBS site for information about how and where you can donate blood.

Image credit: iStock 

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