Gut Bacteria Provides Key to Making Universal Blood


Type-O blood is special because it can be donated to anyone without the risk of a bad mismatch reaction.

People with Type AB blood carry both the A antigen and B antigen, meaning they can only give to other AB types, but are universal recipients. Those without this factor have a negative blood type. That's why Type O negative blood is always in high demand during emergencies, when there is often little time to test a patient's blood type to make sure it matches a donor.

"The idea is if you could cut that additional sugar off the A or B, you would convert it into O because it would come back to that base structure", Withers said. Type A has one type of sugar and Type B has another; Type AB has both sugars. Then, it will likely be implemented in blood banks so that they have the option of stripping out the blood type identifier and making these units a universal blood type when necessary.

"We have been particularly interested in enzymes that allow us to remove the A or B antigens from red blood cells", Stephen Withers, one of the researchers from the University of British Columbia, said in a statement.

"Antigens can trigger an immune response if they are foreign to the body, so transfusion patients should receive either their own blood type, or type O to avoid a reaction", he said.

Dr. Pampee Young, chief medical officer of the American Red Cross, said this sort of innovation, if it proves effective, would help bolster the "constant" need for blood.

"This technique could broaden the utility of the current blood supply because O type blood can be donated to anybody", said Dr Steve Withers, from the University of British Columbia, who presented this work at a meeting of the American Chemical Society on Tuesday.

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"With metagenomics, you take all of the organisms from an environment and extract the sum total DNA of those organisms all mixed up together", he explains. What's more, these enzymes were 30 times more effective at stripping off A antigens than the best-performing enzyme previously suggested for this goal, Withers reported.

The researchers have applied for a patent, and are loath to talk about which specific gut bacteria creates the enzyme until it is approved, he said.

They then used a strain of E. coli bacteria to select genes that code enzymes appropriate for the task (enzymes that can remove sugar molecules from red blood cells).

The research team made a decision to look for enzymes that might be able to do the job using something called "metagenomics" to analyse the genes of multiple kinds of organisms.

Withers is already planning his next steps, which include validating the enzymes and conducting clinical trials.

"Our hope is that one day we can eventually render any type of donated blood, tissues or organs, safe for use by anyone regardless of their native blood type".

They found an entire family of enzymes that gut bacteria use to pluck sugars off mucins, which are the proteins that line the gut wall. Withers said discovery could ease such pressures in the future.