The recognition that individuals have different blood types was first described by Karl Landsteiner (1868–1943) in the early 1900s, based on his observation that serum from one person could cause a clumping of RBCs from another. These studies led Landsteiner to the identification of four distinct blood types. Subsequent research by other scientists determined that the four blood types were based on the presence or absence of surface carbohydrates “A” and “B,” and this provided the foundation for the ABO blood group system that is still in use today. The functions of these antigens are unknown, but some have been associated with normal biochemical functions of the cell. Furthermore, ABO blood types are inherited as alleles (one from each parent), and they display patterns of dominant and codominant inheritance. The alleles for A and B blood types are codominant to each other, and both are dominant over blood type O. Therefore, individuals with genotypes of AA or AO have type A blood and express the A carbohydrate antigen on the surface of their RBCs. People with genotypes of BB or BO have type B blood and express the B carbohydrate antigen on the surface of their RBCs. Those with a genotype of AB have type AB blood and express both A and B carbohydrate antigens on the surface of their RBCs. Finally, individuals with a genotype of OO have type O blood and lack A and B carbohydrate on the surface of their RBCs.
It is important to note that the RBCs of all four ABO blood types share a common protein receptor molecule, and it is the addition of specific carbohydrates to the protein receptors that determines A, B, and AB blood types. The genes that are inherited for the A, B, and AB blood types encode enzymes that add the carbohydrate component to the protein receptor. Individuals with O blood type still have the protein receptor but lack the enzymes that would add carbohydrates that would make their red blood cell type A, B, or AB.
IgM antibodies in plasma that cross-react with blood group antigens not present on an individual’s own RBCs are called isohemagglutinins. Isohemagglutinins are produced within the first few weeks after birth and persist throughout life. These antibodies are produced in response to exposure to environmental antigens from food and microorganisms. A person with type A blood has A antigens on the surface of their RBCs and will produce anti-B antibodies to environmental antigens that resemble the carbohydrate component of B antigens. A person with type B blood has B antigens on the surface of their RBCs and will produce anti-A antibodies to environmental antigens that are similar to the carbohydrate component of A antigens. People with blood type O lack both A and B antigens on their RBCs and, therefore, produce both anti-A and anti-B antibodies. Conversely, people with AB blood type have both A and B antigens on their RBCs and, therefore, lack anti-A and anti-B antibodies.
A patient may require a blood transfusion because they lack sufficient RBCs (anemia) or because they have experienced significant loss of blood volume through trauma or disease. Although the blood transfusion is given to help the patient, it is essential that the patient receive a transfusion with matching ABO blood type. A transfusion with an incompatible ABO blood type may lead to a strong, potentially lethal type II hypersensitivity cytotoxic response called hemolytic transfusion reaction (HTR).
For instance, if a person with type B blood receives a transfusion of type A blood, their anti-A antibodies will bind to and agglutinate the transfused RBCs. In addition, activation of the classical complement cascade will lead to a strong inflammatory response, and the complement membrane attack complex (MAC) will mediate massive hemolysis of the transfused RBCs. The debris from damaged and destroyed RBCs can occlude blood vessels in the alveoli of the lungs and the glomeruli of the kidneys. Within 1 to 24 hours of an incompatible transfusion, the patient experiences fever, chills, pruritus (itching), urticaria (hives), dyspnea, hemoglobinuria (hemoglobin in the urine), and hypotension (low blood pressure). In the most serious reactions, dangerously low blood pressure can lead to shock, multi-organ failure, and death of the patient.
Hospitals, medical centers, and associated clinical laboratories typically use hemovigilance systems to minimize the risk of HTRs due to clerical error. Hemovigilance systems are procedures that track transfusion information from the donor source and blood products obtained to the follow-up of recipient patients. Hemovigilance systems used in many countries identify HTRs and their outcomes through mandatory reporting (e.g., to the Food and Drug Administration in the United States), and this information is valuable to help prevent such occurrences in the future. For example, if an HTR is found to be the result of laboratory or clerical error, additional blood products collected from the donor at that time can be located and labeled correctly to avoid additional HTRs. As a result of these measures, HTR-associated deaths in the United States occur in about one per 2 million transfused units.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology