Blood conversion could benefit developing countries

There are many challenges to blood transfusions in developing countries Copyright: NIH

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[LAGOS] Scientists have developed a simple method of converting blood from various blood groups into group O, which can be given to anyone.

The findings may help relieve blood shortages in hospitals, a common problem in developing countries, although further clinical trials on the technique are needed.

The research, published in Nature Biotechnology this week (2 April), describes the use of newly discovered enzymes to convert blood types A, B, and AB into O.

Blood types depend on the variety of a sugar molecule, called agglutinogen, found on the surface of red blood cells.

A and B blood cells have one of two different sugar molecules, which can trigger an immune reaction in unmatched recipients. Blood cells in group O have neither, while those in group AB have both.

The new enzymes act like scissors to remove these molecules from the blood cells, turning them into type O, which then do not cause immune reactions in recipients.

But it could be some time before the discovery is used in developing countries.

Lead researcher Henrik Clausen of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, says, “There is a fair amount of technology involved in the current process, and clinical trials are needed to be able to deliver converted cells for transfusion medicine.”

“Current estimates from the company ZymeQuest, which is involved in commercialising the technology, gives a timeline of 3–4 years for the United States and Europe, but the timeline for developing countries is unknown for now,” he told SciDev.Net.

Blood transfusion problems are common in developing countries due to weak infrastructure and poor blood safety practices.

“Lack of voluntary donors, unscreened blood and blood storage systems are challenges to blood transfusion,” said Modupe Olaiya, the executive secretary of a government-owned blood transfusion service in Lagos, Nigeria.

She says the blood bank keeps group A, B and AB blood for a long time, but often ends up discarding it because there is little demand for it compared to blood group O.

If it reaches Nigeria, the development will relieve problems such as paying ‘touts’ ― whose blood is often hastily screened ― to donate blood, she added.

Aba Sagoe, head of the Haematology Department at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, said the development will be especially useful in treating neonates, as there is rarely blood available for them during emergencies.

The findings could be useful to relieve blood shortages in other developing countries, particularly in the context of natural disasters.

Theoretically, it “will ensure the safety and availability of blood transfusions,” Tian Ding of the Capital University of Medical Sciences in Bejing told SciDev.Net.

But he stressed the need to test for counter reactions with further clinical research.

Link to full paper in Nature Biotechnology

Reference: Nature Biotechnology doi:10.1038/nbt1298 (2007)