A new reason to B positive

UBC researchers aim to make blood types obsolete


By Nils Rummler

A new research project aims to make blood types become obsolete, helping to ease Canada’s blood shortage.

Dr. Stephen Withers, a researcher in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at UBC, and his colleagues are researching a way to turn any blood into type O blood, a universal blood type, by removing specific sugar molecules from blood types A and B.

There’s a need for type O blood, such as in emergency situations when physicians don’t have time to determine a person’s type, said Withers. “It makes [other types of blood] more useful in the sense that it can be donated to anyone.”

Low supply

In June, the Canadian Blood Services announced that its number of donors had reached its lowest number in a decade and in August that they only held three days’ worth of type O blood. Marco Dominguez, head of the communications department at Canadian Blood Services, said that the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for these low donor numbers

“Over the course of a pandemic … there really has been an impact on the number of donors who actively give blood or plasma and platelets,” said Dominguez. “We are still needing to kind of encourage more folks to donate.”

With Withers’ process for turning all blood types into type O blood, the accessibility of blood could be eased, but it won’t solve the blood shortage as it doesn’t increase the total amount of blood, Withers said.

“It certainly would help deal with the shortage of type O blood in the future,” he said. “And that is always the one that is in short supply.”

A setback is the number of approval and safety processes the project must go through. “It’s a slow process,” Withers said. “It’s possible that within five years … but it won’t be any shorter than that.”

Nothing beats giving back

In the meantime, Dominguez urges others to go out and donate blood. “[Donating blood] is a way for people in Canada, no matter where they live, to commit to giving to others,” he said.  “Giving to others is really the greatest human connection we can make.”

Shawn Gold, a regular blood donor at the Canadian Blood Services’, has made a habit of donating blood. “I think I’m up to 155 donations now,” he said. “I believe in giving back to the community.”

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