People with Type O blood might not be the only “universal donors” for much longer, according to new research showing that gut bacteria can be used to convert A and B blood types into O blood. As Newsweek reports, this discovery could provide a potentially life-saving service to people who urgently need blood transfusions in the event that O blood isn't readily available.
Steve Withers of the University of British Colombia is presenting the research this week at the American Chemical Society (ACS) national meeting. For each of the four blood types, different sugars are present on the outside of red blood cells. The immune system identifies these sugars as antigens, which can destroy cells and cause an allergic response if they’re not compatible with the transfusion recipient’s blood type. Because Type O blood has no antigens, it can be accepted by everyone.
Withers found that enzymes from one’s gut bacteria—specifically E. coli—could be used to eat away at the antigens attached to A and B blood cells, thus transforming them into O cells.
As the ACS video below explains, “The researchers homed in on the enzymes the bacteria use to pluck the sugars off and found a new family of enzymes that are 30 times more effective at removing red blood cell sugars than previously reported candidates.”
Previous research has taken a similar approach, but until now, scientists have been unable to find the right enzymes to fulfill the task safely and economically, according to Withers.
Withers is now working with colleagues to validate these findings in hopes of potentially rolling them out in a clinical setting. “Of course, it will have to go through lots of clinical trials to make sure that it doesn’t have any adverse consequences, but it is looking very promising,” Withers said in a statement.