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Researchers Have Discovered How to Make All Blood Type O-negative

Why Global Citizens Should Care
A key component to ensuring global health and well-being for all is access to quality health care around the world. A breakthrough in blood work like this could ultimately save lives everywhere. You can take action on health issues here.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia may have just solved the problem of blood shortages by finding a way to convert all donated blood to the universal type O-negative, according to CBC.

O-negative blood is the rarest blood type, but it is also the most useful, as it acts as a universal donor — it can be given to people with type A, B, AB, or O.

Unfortunately, people with O-negative blood type can only receive O-negative blood, and there are often shortages of it.

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This announcement, made last week at the American Chemical Society meeting by UBC biochemist Stephen Withers, means that shortages could one day become a thing of the past.

Blood types A, B, and AB have specific sugar molecules that are known to each individual’s immune system. If a patient is given the wrong blood type, it can spark a negative immune reaction against the blood cells.

O-negative blood is basically invisible to the immune system because it doesn’t have these sugar molecules, which is why it can be given to people with all blood types.

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So, to make all blood types compatible, researchers have essentially been searching for ways to remove the sugar molecules since the early 1980s, according to CBC.

The UBC group decided to look for an enzyme that targets and removes particular molecules. They thought some kind of bacteria might naturally produce an enzyme like this.

And they were right — they got to work studying human gut bacteria.

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“It was quite likely that the gut bacteria had evolved the capacity to cleave off some of those sugars to derive energy for themselves. So the human gut microbiome seemed like a good place to look,” Withers told CBC.

The team looked at 20,000 DNA samples from gut bacteria and realized that some of them could produce the enzymes that could cut the sugars in the way they had hoped.

They then discovered that one class of enzymes worked best.

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“It can cleave approximately 30 times more quickly from the previous best candidate that was published a while back, when we did a side-by-side comparison of the two,” Withers told CBC.

The biochemist said that advances in metagenomics helped them get to this point. New tools allowed them to grow large quantities of gut bacteria DNA and observe the gut microbiome at a large scale, which allowed him to look broadly for the best bacteria for this purpose, CBC reported.

“This work is very promising,” Dana Devine, chief scientist at Canadian Blood Services, told CBC by email. “The type of blood donated will likely never be exactly matched to the demand for specific blood groups, but this new technology offers an opportunity to create a 'workaround' for the disproportionate demand for O blood by turning the excess inventory of other blood groups into group O.”

Safety tests are still needed for this process, but this new technique could be a game changer in live-saving health services.