In the field of medicine, one of the long sought Holy Grail’s is the ability to adapt any blood supply to any patient – making any blood type into a universal donor Type-O. Last week, researchers from the University of British Columbia announced that they may have discovered a way to convert any donor blood type to the much valued universal donor Type-O. Their findings, presented at a national meeting of the American Chemical Society represents the most momentous step towards this dream since the identification of the ABO blood groups over 200 years ago.
Know Your Type – The Hard Science of Your Blood
If you’ve ever given blood or had a medical procedure, chances are you’ve been asked your blood type. What many don’t know is that when categorizing human blood, there is a whopping thirty-five different grouping systems. However, the ABO blood group, of which most are familiar, is by far the most important.
As with the thirty-four other blood group systems, the ABO blood grouping types are differentiated and organized by chemical markers on the surface of red blood cells (RBCs).
What Determines Your Blood Type? What is a Universal Donor Type-O?
The ABO system differentiates genetically specific polysaccharide clusters that adorn the outer cell walls. These most important markers are called the A-antigen type and the B-antigen type and, you guessed it, folks with type-A blood have RBCs that feature the A-antigen. While those with the type-B have RBCs expressing B-antigen.
Those people who are type-AB have RBCs that display both antigen species. Type-O RBCs, on the other hand, do not express either antigen type. This is what makes Type-O so important in blood transfusion scenarios.
It’s these all important antigens that make blood donation a precise science. Any mismatch and the A/B antigens will begin invoking a devastating and potentially lethal immune response in a recipient whose blood type does not match their donor (with the exception of Type-AB). That is why the gold standard for donation is Type-O – no antigens, no fuss, no muss.
Now, science may have finally been able to convert other blood-types to Type-O.
New Trick from the Old Corpse – Creating Universal Donor Type-O
When looking for a new, gentler enzyme to process any type of donor blood to the universal donor Type-O, Dr. Stephen Withers decided to go back to the source: the human body.
Specifically, he ventured into the gut – the microbiome of the moment – where several known microorganisms utilize mucins that line the intestinal track. These mucins, which aid in digestion, are structurally similar to the sugars of blood type antigens.
Using ecological techniques, Withers and his colleagues isolated a family of enzymes which, through forced evolution in E. coli, are now able to the remove the blood antigen sugars 30 times as fast as any previous enzymatic approach. Hence creating the conduit that converts blood to Type-O.
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For now, Wither is working with the Centre for Blood Research at UBC to demonstrate reproducibility of the universal donor conversion process. So far he has transformed Type-A blood to universal donor Type-O. Type-B and Type-AB have yet to be tested. Moreover, the modified blood will need to be assessed for viability before clinical testing can begin.