Right now, only seven to eight percent of the population are considered universal blood donors, meaning they have type O negative blood. This blood type is highly sought after by the Red Cross and blood banks, particularly during disasters and crisis situations in which many people need blood transfusions, because it can be used to treat anyone, regardless of their blood type.
For those of us who don’t have much background knowledge of blood science, here’s a recap of how it works. There are 4 types of blood: A, B, AB, and O. Most blood cells have certain types of sugars (antigens) on their surface, and the immune system will kill any cells that have antigens it doesn’t recognize. Type A blood has A antigens on the surface of its cells, type B has B antigens, type AB has both kinds of antigens, and type O has no antigens. This means type O is the only kind of blood that will not be rejected, no matter which type of blood the person receiving the transfusion has.
There is one other part to blood science that throws a wrench into the mix too, however. The presence or absence of the RH factor is what is meant when someone talks about a “positive” or “negative” blood type. Negative blood can be given to people with either negative or positive blood, but positive blood can only be shared with other positives.
These are the factors that have made type O negative blood the universal donor, but a lot more people may soon be able to donate blood universally, thanks to science. Researchers have discovered bacteria in the human gut that eats the same sort of sugars that exist on the surface of blood cells.
When this bacteria was added to blood, it consumed the antigens, essentially turning type A blood into type O. Researchers will need more blood samples to ensure that the enzymes are successful in removing the antigens from all blood types.
Similar systems have been developed in the past, but this method would be 30 times faster than anything we currently have available. This is the most promising treatment ever seen to make blood more universally available to patients, but it still has to make it through clinical trials.
“It works in whole blood, so you could see this being put into the bag at the time of collection and just sitting there doing its job while this stuff is being stored,” says researcher Stephen Withers. “Obviously, the next stages are all about safety, making sure this doesn’t cause any inadvertent effects.”
If all goes well, type A negative, B negative, and AB negative blood will all be universal, just like type O negative. And that means it may soon be much easier for people to get the lifesaving blood they need, and less will be wasted when it isn’t the kind that’s needed.
Check out the video below to learn more.
Would you be more likely to give blood if you knew that it would be more universally used? What do you think about this innovation? We’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?