Scientists: Bacteria from the intestines will help to create a universal blood

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Type A blood, for example, gets its name because it has what's termed the A antigen.

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

But researcher Stephen Withers, who is presenting his findings at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in Boston, said the gut enzymes represented the most promising treatment so far.

According to Canadian Blood Services, about 7 per cent of Canadians have type-O negative blood, while 36 per cent have type-A positive and six per cent are type-A negative.

For years researchers have been scrambling to find ways to adjust donated blood to a common type, however, they have not yet been able to find an efficient selective enzyme that could do the trick while still remaining safe and economical.

If someone with type A blood is given type B blood, their antigens will attack the new blood cells and cause an incompatibility reaction resulting in fever, chills, muscle aches and nausea. The Red Cross had to call for blood donations this January after the raging storms and the universal O type blood was in great need.

Now, however, Withers and his colleagues think they might have some good candidates.

Presidio of Monterey Follow CHOMP Blood Drive
Presidio of Monterey Follow CHOMP Blood Drive

There has always been interest in finding a safe and effective way of removing the A or B antigens from red blood cells, says University of British Columbia biochemistry researcher Stephen Withers.

The researchers found these enzymes with a method called metagenomics.

An entire family of enzymes used by the gut bacteria in plucking sugar off mucins, the proteins that line the gut wall, were tested to know how well they could remove the sugary antigens on Type A and B blood.

"Antigens can trigger an immune response if they are foreign to the body, so transfusion patients should receive either their own blood type, or type O to avoid a reaction", he said. What's more, these enzymes were 30 times more effective at stripping off A antigens than the best-performing enzyme previously suggested for this goal, Withers reported. But that particular enzyme, which could convert only type B blood, was too expensive and inefficient for real-world use, said a 2008 review in the British Journal of Haematology.

Have you ever had a blood transfusion? In some targeted situations in which type O blood is scarce, the ability to transform one type to another could come in handy, Ziman told Live Science.

Withers is already planning his next steps, which include validating the enzymes and conducting clinical trials.

"Each and every day, individuals across the country depend on blood and platelet donations for lifesaving treatments and emergency care, so it's critical that people donate now to meet these needs", Cliff Numark, senior vice president, Red Cross Blood Services, said in a statement. With this new process, blood taken straight from donors could be quickly converted into type-O negative, without much delay.

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