New enzyme treatment a potential boon to blood banks

An enzyme may be the key to turning any blood type into the universal donor type O.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia in Canada have engineered an enzyme to “clip” off the markers that make blood cells type A and B. These markers are called antigens and are part of red blood cells. They determine both an individual’s blood type as well as what type of blood they can safely receive. Type O has no antigens and is therefore safe to give to anyone, making it extremely important in emergency situations. An enzyme that can convert different blood types into the universal donor type could help ease the demand for type O blood donors worldwide.

This is not the first time scientists have explored the idea of converting blood types. Two decades ago, researchers in New York successfully used an enzyme from green coffee beans to clip off antigens from red blood cells, but failed to optimize the reaction such that it would be effective for large volumes.

The current study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, involved creating an enzyme using directed evolution that can work efficiently at more practical volumes. Directed evolution involves inserting mutations into an enzyme that increase the efficiency of a desired action, and repeating this through many generations. Eventually, the enzyme reaches an optimal efficiency for the action – in this case, the ability to clip off antigens. Lead author of the study, Dr David Kwan, said “we produced a mutant enzyme that is very efficient at cutting off the sugars in A and B blood, and is much more proficient at removing the subtypes of the A-antigen that the parent enzyme struggles with.”

This is a good step forwards in increasing Type O blood availability. However even with the enzyme, blood donors of all types are still required to donate in order to save lives. Giving blood is a simple way to help those in need – get in contact with your local blood bank to find out more.

Alessandra Dillenburg

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