‘Game-changing’ breakthrough for organ transplants as scientists alter blood type of donor kidney in move that could be boost for waiting list patients

  • Breakthrough allows donor kidneys to be altered to universal O blood type 
  • A and B blood types cannot be transplanted to one another currently
  • Problem is especially acute for ethnic minority groups – more likely to be B-type 
  • Ethnic minority groups often wait a year longer than white patients

Scientists have altered the blood type of donor kidneys in a ‘game-changing’ discovery that could boost the organ transplant supply.

Kidneys from patients with an A blood type cannot currently be transplanted to those with a B blood type, nor the other way around. This means many patients are left waiting for a match.

The problem is especially acute for ethnic minority groups, who are more likely to have B-type blood.

Donation rates from these populations are low, so there are not enough kidneys to go round.

But scientists have worked out how to convert kidneys to the universal O blood type, which will allow more transplants to take place.

Researchers used a normothermic perfusion machine, which normally passes oxygenated blood through a donor kidney to preserve it. 

Professor Mike Nicholson of the University of Cambridge is one scientist responsible for the breakthrough. Pictured: Professor Nicholson working on a perfusing kidney which could increase availability of transplants

The game-changing discovery allows organs to be converted to O-type blood which can be used for patients of any blood type

However, they used the device to flush blood infused with an enzyme through three kidneys to remove the blood-type markers, or antigens, that line the blood vessels.

As a result, the organs were converted to O-type blood, which can be used for patients of any blood type. 

The breakthrough is the work of Professor Mike Nicholson, professor of transplant surgery at the University of Cambridge, and PhD student Serena MacMillan.

Miss MacMillan said: ‘Our confidence was really boosted after we applied the enzyme to a piece of human kidney tissue and saw quickly that the antigens were removed. After this, we knew that the process is feasible and we just had to scale up the project to apply the enzyme to full-size human kidneys.

PhD student Serena MacMillan (above) is also responsible for the breakthrough and is excited to see how this could potentially impact ‘so many lives’

‘By taking B-type human kidneys and pumping the enzyme through the organ using our normothermic perfusion machine, we saw in a matter of just a few hours that we had converted a B-type kidney into an O type. It’s very exciting to think about how this could potentially impact so many lives.’

People from ethnic minority groups often wait a year longer for a transplant than white patients, so this could help them most. Last year, just over 9 per cent of total organ donations came from black and minority ethnic donors – patients from these groups make up 33 per cent of the kidney transplant waiting list.

Dr Aisling McMahon, of Kidney Research UK, said: ‘The research that Mike and Serena are undertaking is potentially game-changing.’

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