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Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
12:00 AM 15th June 2024
lifestyle

A Precious Life Giving Commodity

 
Photo: NHS Blood & Transplant
Photo: NHS Blood & Transplant
Let me briefly take you into the realms of strange beliefs and mysticism for a moment.

I am writing about a special liquid that is familiar to all of us and that fascinates a great many people.

A liquid Ancient Egyptians bathed in.

A liquid Aristocrats drank. 

A liquid playwrights and authors use as a source for a variety of themes in their works.

What could it be?

In the Dark Ages, for example, no witch's brew could have been effective without it.

Bram Stocker’s Dracula is one of those who drank it.

And modern humanity transfuses it.

Yes, you’ve guessed—blood—and thanks to Denise M. Harmening for that description in an article that appears as Chapter 1 of Modern Blood Banking & Transfusion Practices.

Indeed, blood is a fascinating liquid that has been associated with desirable qualities like courage and generosity for centuries. And as it is the end of National Blood Week, we need to be aware of the good work that the NHS Blood and Transplant service does and how we can help.

Photo: NHS Blood & Transplant
Photo: NHS Blood & Transplant
Given the recent cyberattack on several London hospitals, which resulted in the declaration of a critical incident, the cancellation of operations and tests, and the inability to perform blood transfusions, it is crucial to acknowledge the significance of blood donations. 

We take for granted those 9 to 12 pints of this mysterious dark red fluid, which is four times more viscous than water and circulates around our body 24 hours a day.

I'm going to take you on a whistlestop tour of blood transfusion and briefly outline a little more about it, as well as how scientific discoveries have made it possible to transfuse blood.

But what gives me the authority to write about blood?

My first job was as a blood transfusion scientist, working in the different laboratories for the National Blood Authority as it was known then. It was a fulfilling career, and a job I did for 12 years before making a radical career change to journalism and business. That’s why I am familiar with Dr Harmening’s book and have used it for this article

The recent COVID-19 report about scientists looking for people with high levels of coronavirus antibodies in their plasma brought it all back; the subject of my dissertation four decades ago was on a similar theme: looking for donors with high levels of varicella zoster (Chickenpox) antibodies.

Image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay
Image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay
Come with me as we enter the blood bank. As we walk through the refrigerators, the first thing you'll notice is the sea of red. You'll see row upon row of bags of blood, each labelled according to one of the four main blood groups e.g., A, B, O and AB positive or negative.

If we pick one of these innocuous bags up, it is predominately filled with red blood cells. Approximately 280 million molecules of haemoglobin, a red-pigmented protein, give blood its bright red colour.

If you examine closely, you will notice a very thin middle layer known as the Buffy Coat. This layer contains white cells, specifically leukocytes, which are immune system cells responsible for protecting the body against both infectious diseases and foreign antigens, as well as responding to allergies. It also contains platelets, which aid in blood clotting and the formation of a scab when you cut yourself.

The rest of the bag's straw-coloured plasma transports waste products from the cells to the organs for removal, transports nutrients, and absorbs and distributes heat throughout the body to regulate body temperature.

This strange liquid has captivated people for centuries, and there's a lot more than I have space to write about here.

The popularity of blood and transfusions with either animal or human blood has fluctuated with the success of countless experiments dating back centuries. In the 15th century, Pope Innocent VII departed this life having received a blood transfusion in the hope that it would cure him of an illness.

It's hard to imagine, then, that, despite its fascination, it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that we got to understand it better.

Now, do you know what blood group you are? I am AB Rhesus positive.

Karl Landsteiner's landmark discovery of the ABO blood group system surprisingly only in 1901 identified the four main blood groups, marking the beginning of blood transfusion as we know it today. His Nobel Prize-winning work demonstrated the ability to match blood from two individual blood groups.

That’s when everything started to come together.

Two further great advances occurred during World War 1. First, it was found that blood that had been removed from the body could be prevented from clotting by mixing it with sodium citrate, and secondly, it was demonstrated that blood could be preserved in a safe condition for short periods in a refrigerator.

The following 90 years after Landsteiner’s brilliant discovery, many other blood groups and sub-groups have been identified: M, N, S, P, JKa, Kell, to name just a few.

They all need to be identified with the completion of a crossmatch before a blood transfusion can take place.

To think, without these discoveries, many surgical practices would be impossible, and the treatment of many medical conditions would be infinitely more difficult.

However, as I conclude my brief tour, I hope it has sparked your curiosity. If you ever cut yourself while chopping food, pruning in the garden, or, for men, nick yourself while shaving, remember that when that tiny droplet of blood appears, the platelets begin the process of clotting and forming a scab, changing your perspective on this miraculous liquid.

There is so much good in a donation of blood that can save lives so I urge you to consider giving blood.

Photo: NHS Blood & Transplant
Photo: NHS Blood & Transplant
To find out more about giving blood visit https://www.nhsbt.nhs.uk/


Sources:

Denise M. Harmening Modern Blood Banking & Transfusion Practices.
An introduction to blood transfusion practice John A G Collison article in Med-Tech March 1991

Routine Serology ABO and Rhesus Systems Cross Matching Technique Biotest