Golden Blood seems like the newest in medical quackery. As in, get a golden transfusion to balance your tantric midichlorians & receive a free charcoal frozen dessert cleanse. Don’t let the New-Agey moniker throw you. Golden blood is really the nickname for Rh-null, the world’s rarest blood group type .
As Mosaic reports, this blood type is so rare that only about 43 people are reported to have it worldwide, & until 1961, when it had been first identified in an Australian Woman, doctors assumed embryos with Rh-null blood would simply die in utero.
But what makes Rh-null so rare, and why is it so dangerous to live with? To answer that, we’ll first need to explore why hematologists classify blood types the way they are doing .
A Brief blood history
Our ancestors understood little about blood. Even the foremost basic of blood knowledge — blood inside the body is pretty good, blood outside isn’t ideal, an excessive amount of blood outside is cause for concern — escaped humanity’s grasp for an embarrassing number of centuries.
Absence this data, our ancestors devised less-than-scientific theories on what blood was, theories that varied wildly across time & culture. To select only one , the physicians of Shakespeare’s day believed blood to be one among 4 bodily fluids or “humors“ (the others being melancholy, choler, & phlegm).
Handed down from Ancient Greek Physicians, humorism stated that these bodily fluids determined someone’s personality. Blood was considered hot & moist, leading to a sanguine temperament. The more blood people had in their systems, the more passionate, charismatic, & impulsive they might be. Teenagers were considered to possess a natural abundance of blood, and men had more-than women.
Humorism leads all kinds of poor medical advice. Most famously, Galen of Pergamum used it because the basis for his prescription of bloodletting. Sporting a “when unsure, let it out” mentality, Galen declared blood the dominant humor, & bloodletting a superb way to balance the body. Blood relation’s to heat also made it a go-to for fever reduction.
Soon after Harvey’s discovery, the earliest blood transfusions were attempted, but it wasn’t until 1665 that first successful transfusion was performed by British physician Richard Lower. Lower’s operation was between dogs, and his success prompted physicians like Jean-Baptiste Denis try to transfuse blood from animals to humans, a process called xenotransfusion. The death of human patients ultimately led to the practice being outlawed.
The first successful human-to-human transfusion wouldn’t be performed until 1818, when British obstetrician James Blundell managed it to treat postpartum hemorrhage. But even with a proven technique in place’, in following decades many blood-transfusion patients continued to die mysteriously.
Enter Austrian Physician Landsteiner. In 1901 he began his work to classify blood groups. Exploring the work of Leonard Landois — the physiologist who showed that when the red blood cells of 1 animal are introduced to a special animal’s, they clump together — Landsteiner thought an identical reaction may occur in intra-human transfusions, which might explain why transfusion success was so spotty. In 1909, he classified the A, B, AB, & O blood groups, and for his work he received the 1930 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine.
What causes blood types?
It took us a short time to understand the intricacies of blood, but today, we all know that this life-sustaining substance consists of:
- Red blood cells (RBC) — cells that carry oxygen & take away CO2 throughout the body
- White blood cells (WBC) — immune cells that protect the body against infection & foreign agents
- Platelets — cells that help blood clot
- Plasma — a liquid that carries salts & enzymes.
Each component features a part to play in blood’s function, but the red blood cells are liable for our differing blood types. These cells have proteins covering their surface called antigens, and therefore the presence or absence of particular antigens determines blood group — A blood has only A antigens, B only B, AB both, and sort O neither. Red blood cells sport another antigen called the RhD protein. When it’s present, a blood group is claimed to be positive; when it’s absent, it’s said to be negative. The standard combinations of A, B, & RhD antigens give us the 8 common blood types (A+, A-, B+, B-, AB+, AB-, O+, & O-).
Blood antigen proteins play variety of cellular roles, but recognizing foreign cells in blood is that the most vital for this discussion.
Think of antigens as backstage passes to the bloodstream, while our immunity system is that the doorman. If the system recognizes an antigen, it lets the cell pass. If it doesn’t recognize an antigen, it initiates the body’s defense systems & destroys the invader. So, a really aggressive doorman.
While our immune systems are thorough, they’re not too bright. If an individual with A blood receives a transfusion of B blood, immune system won’t recognize the new substance as a life-saving necessity. Instead, it’ll consider the red blood cells invaders & attack. This is often why numerous people either grew ill or died during transfusions before Landsteiner’s brilliant discovery.
This is also why people with O negative blood are considered “universal donors.” Since their red blood cells lack A, B, & RhD antigens, immune systems do not have how to acknowledge these cells as foreign then leaves them tolerably alone.
How is Rh-null the rarest blood type?
Let’s return to golden blood. In truth, the 8 common blood types are an oversimplification of how blood types actually work. As Smithsonian.com points out, “each of those 8 blood types are often subdivided into many distinct varieties,” leading to many different blood types, each classified on a mess of antigens combinations.
Here is where things get tricky. The RhD protein previously mentioned only refers to at least one of 61 potential proteins in Rh system. Blood is consider as Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in Rh system. This not only makes it rare, but this also means it are often accepted by anyone with a rare blood group within the Rh system.
This is why it’s considered “golden blood.” it’s worth its weight in gold.
As Mosaic reports, golden blood is incredibly important to medicine, but also very dangerous to live life with. If a Rh-null carrier needs a transfusion , they will find it difficult to locate a donor, & blood is notoriously difficult to move internationally. Rh-null carriers are encouraged to donate blood as insurance for themselves, but with so few donors opened up over the worldwide & limits on how often they can donate, this can also put an altruistic burden on those select few who agreed with donate for others.