UBC researchers transform blood types using human gut enzyme

The team discovered enzymes living in the human gut that can change blood into universally usable Type O, potentially boosting supply for transfusions.

Lead researcher says technique, which changes all blood types into Type O, could boost supply for transfusions

UBC researchers believe their new technique could help blood banks face fewer shortages. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Researchers from the University of British Columbia believe they can make blood transfusions easier for medical professionals and safer for patients thanks to newly discovered enzymes that transform blood type.

Lead researcher Stephen Withers said his team discovered enzymes living in the human gut that can change blood into universally usable Type O. That could prevent immune reactions when patients receive the wrong type of blood.

"Hopefully what it would do is loosen up the blood supply, in a sense: make it more broadly available," Withers said.

"One often hears these calls... for additional supplies of blood from the blood service. 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."

Significant breakthrough

Withers explained that some blood types have antigens, which trigger immune responses.

Type A blood, for example, gets its name because it has what's termed the A antigen. O blood, however, has no antigens, which makes it very valuable.

Withers said scientists have been working with enzymes to convert blood for some time but this discovery represents a significant breakthrough.

"Researchers have been studying the use of enzymes to modify blood as far back as 1982," Withers said. "However, these new enzymes can do the job 30 times better."

Could be ready in 5 years

The origin of the enzyme is an unpleasant one: it was first gathered from genetic material found in faecal samples.

Withers stressed, however, that the enzymes actually used on blood would not come from such a place. "The enzyme we produced has actually never seen a faecal sample in its life," he said.

UBC said Withers and his colleagues are applying for a patent for the new technique to test the enzymes on a larger scale and prepare for clinical work.

Safety is the main focus of further testing, Withers said, as the blood created with the technique has never been used.

He estimated that, barring any setbacks, O-type blood created with the enzyme technique could be ready for use in medicine in five to 10 years.

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Liam Britten

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Liam Britten is a journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.

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