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A team from the University of British Columbia of Canada may have paved the way to a less risky future for blood transfusions. In Issue 8, you may have read my article “Baby, what’s your type”, in which I explained the actions of antigens and antibodies to define exactly what your blood type means. In essence, your blood type is categorised by presence or absence of different proteinous residues (called antigens) on the surface of red blood cells. Blood type A features an N-acetylgalactosamine residue, while B types have a galactose residue. Type AB has both. The only blood type free from this is type O. The risk with blood transfusions is that each blood type also carries antibodies. These attack blood of different types that feature these residues. Because O is free of residues, it is considered the “universal” blood type—anybody can receive type O blood, because there are no residues to provoke an immune response.
The team of researchers worked with a family of enzymes called 98 glycoside hydrolase enzymes, initially extracted from a bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae. Through a method called “directed evolution”, a super high-powered enzyme strain was engineered that is able to efficiently remove the antigen residues. Application of this enzyme will allow people to receive blood from any donor, removing hurdles in blood transfusions such as risk of clerical errors in blood typing, and the rarity of certain blood types.
While the current strain is not yet able to perform 100 per cent removal of antigens, further manipulation of the enzyme may be all we need for the success of this medical breakthrough.