A man in Australia saved the lives of more than 2 million babies by donating his "special" blood that made a drug that can prevent life-threatening neonatal problems. But why exactly is this man's blood special, and how does the drug work to save babies?
The 81-year-old man, James Harrison, donated blood for 60 years and made his last donation on Friday, May 11, to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. "Harrison," sometimes referred to as "the man with the golden arm," donated more than 1,100 blood donations and estimated that his donations helped save the lives of 2.4 million babies, according to the Australian Red Cross.
Harrison's blood contains a rarity antibody that is used to produce a drug called anti-D immunoglobulin, also known as Rh immunoglobulin. This drug is given to mothers who are at risk for "Rh incompatibility" with their fetus, which means that the mother's immune system can attack and destroy the fetus' red blood cells.
When this happens, "you end up in a situation where many of these babies have broken down a significant amount of their red blood cells while in the womb," Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at the Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami. This can lead to serious complications for the newborn, including brain damage, jaundice or even stillbirth, according to Aftab
However, treatment with Rh-immunoglobulin, which is made from the blood plasma of "special" blood donors such as Harrison, can prevent these complications
"The discovery of this antibody is one of the greatest lifesaving discoveries of the last century," Aftab told Live Science. [7 Baby Myths Debunked]
How It Works
You have probably heard that your blood type is "positive" or "negative." This refers to a protein called "Rh factor" on the surface of red blood cells. When humans have this protein, they are called "Rh-positive", whereas if they do not have the protein, they are "Rh-negative".
For most people, no Rh-positive or Rh-negative giant difference in their lives, Aftab said. But for pregnant women, there may be problems if the mother is Rh-negative, but the fetus is Rh-positive.
That's because when the baby's Rh-positive blood cells leak into the mother's bloodstream, the mother's immune system sees the Rh-positive as "foreign" to blood cells and turns them back into antibodies, Aftab said. These antibodies can then traverse the placenta and degrade the red blood cells of the fetus. In developing countries, such Rh incompatibility is a major cause of neonatal disease and mortality, according to Aftab.
To avoid problems with Rh incompatibility, doctors test a woman's blood early in pregnancy or before pregnancy. If Rh negative, it will probably get Rh immunoglobulin. In the United States, about 1
The American College of Women and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that Rh-negative women receive this drug if they are in the 28th week of gestation 72 hours after the birth of a Rh-positive baby. A dose of Rh-immunoglobulin may also be needed after invasive procedures such as amniocentesis or after miscarriage or first trimester weaning, says ACOG. In Australia, about 17 percent of pregnant women receive treatment, including Harrison's own daughter, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
How Rh immunoglobulin works to prevent complications from Rh incompatibility is not clear. But researchers believe that the antibody covers the surface of the fetus' Rh-positive blood cells in the mother's blood and prevents the mother's immune system from seeing them, Aftab said.
It is not common for people to have the type of antibodies in their blood that is used to produce Rh immunoglobulin. In fact, according to the Australian Red Cross, in Australia, the country's Rh immunoglobulin is produced from a pool of just about 200 blood donors.
Harrison probably developed the antibody when he received a large blood transfusion at age 14, "his immune system raised high levels of antibodies" to Rh-positive blood cells, said Aftab, who did not treat Harrison. This would mean that Harrison himself is Rh negative.
Harrison has had to stop donating blood because he has exceeded the age limit for blood donors in Australia, and the Australian Red Cross said he should stop donating to protect his health Sydney Morning Herald
Original article from Live Science .