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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the two basic physiological consequences of transfusion of incompatible blood
  • Compare and contrast ABO and Rh blood groups
  • Identify which blood groups may be safely transfused into patients with different ABO types
  • Discuss the pathophysiology of hemolytic disease of the newborn

Blood transfusions in humans were risky procedures until the discovery of the major human blood groups by Karl Landsteiner, an Austrian biologist and physician, in 1900. Until that point, physicians did not understand that death sometimes followed blood transfusions, when the type of donor blood infused into the patient was incompatible with the patient’s own blood. Blood groups are determined by the presence or absence of specific marker molecules, called antigens, on the plasma membranes of erythrocytes. With their discovery, it became possible for the first time to match patient-donor blood types and prevent transfusion reactions and deaths.

Antigens, antibodies, and transfusion reactions

Antigens are substances that the body does not recognize as belonging to the “self” and that therefore trigger a defensive response from the leukocytes (WBC) of the immune system. Here, we will focus on the role of immunity, antigens, and antibodies in blood transfusion reactions.

Antigens are generally large proteins, but may include other classes of organic molecules, including carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids. Following an infusion of incompatible blood, erythrocytes with foreign antigens appear in the bloodstream and trigger an immune response. Proteins called antibodies (immunoglobulins), which are produced by certain B lymphocytes called plasma cells, attach to the antigens on the plasma membranes of the infused erythrocytes and cause them to stick to one another (i.e. agglutinate). The clumps of erythrocytes block small blood vessels throughout the body, depriving tissues of oxygen and nutrients. As the erythrocyte clumps are degraded, in a process called hemolysis    , their hemoglobin is released into the bloodstream. This hemoglobin travels to the kidneys, which are responsible for filtration of the blood. However, the load of hemoglobin released can easily overwhelm the kidney’s capacity to clear it, and the patient can quickly develop kidney failure.

More than 50 antigens have been identified on erythrocyte membranes, but the most significant in terms of their potential harm to patients are classified in two groups: the ABO blood group and the Rh blood group.

The abo blood group

Although the ABO blood group    name consists of three letters, ABO blood typing designates the presence or absence of just two antigens, A and B. Both are glycoproteins. People whose erythrocytes have A antigens on their erythrocyte membrane surfaces are designated blood type A, and those whose erythrocytes have B antigens are blood type B. People can also have both A and B antigens on their erythrocytes, in which case they are blood type AB. People with neither A nor B antigens are designated blood type O. ABO blood types are genetically determined.

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Source:  OpenStax, Human biology. OpenStax CNX. Dec 01, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11903/1.3
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