Gut Enzyme Could Help Solve US Blood Shortages

Nurses attend blood donors on beds during session at NHS National Blood Service collection centre

A team of researchers headed by University of British Columbia scientist Stephen Withers reports on enzymes - from the human gut - that remove A or B antigens from red blood cells 30 times more efficiently than previously reported enzymes. Per the UK's National Health Service (NHS), blood group A features A-type antigens on the red blood cells, along with anti-B antibodies - the handcuffs that pin down and identify threats to the immune system - within the plasma.

The discovery could make blood donation simpler as people with Type O negative blood are considered universal donors meaning they can donate blood to anyone.

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. Using type O negative blood in transfusions doesn't lead to unsafe reactions in the patient.

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. Because blood type O does not contain any sugars, anyone is eligible to receive it. At first, the scientists analyzed mosquitoes and leeches which are known to degrade blood, but the best enzymes for this job were found in the human gut bacteria where they help digestion.

The UBC team focused on transforming A-type blood into O-type.

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.

"That's always been the biggest challenge", lead study author Stephen Withers, a biochemist at the University of British Columbia, told reporters today (Aug. 21) at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Boston. The team found an entire family of enzymes that gut bacteria use to pluck sugars off mucins, which are the proteins that line the gut wall. "This would decrease the need for those calls because if they had spare A or B or whatever blood around, they could convert that to O and give that to anybody".

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"One of the main challenges with maintaining an adequate blood supply in developed countries is that the use of group O is not in proportion to the incidence of that blood group in the population", said CBS chief scientist Dr. Dana Devine, who called the blood-converting enzymes a potential "game-changer".

"It just becomes another step and another cost", Ziman said.

During a crisis, there's often little time to test a patient's blood type, making O the go-to type.

'I am optimistic that we have a very interesting candidate to adjust donated blood to a common type, ' he said.

One advantage of these enzymes is that they work in whole blood, not just components of blood, meaning that donations could be quickly converted to universal type O, he suggested.

American Red Cross notably announced a blood shortage in July.

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