14 Jun 2014
To mark World Blood Donor Day (14 June) Katherine Nightingale looks back on a couple whose decades-long joint career made blood transfusions safer by discovering blood groups and studying their inheritance.
This picture, taken around 1950, shows Robert Race and Ruth Sanger ― a couple in both science and life ― at work in the MRC Blood Group Research Unit. The unit had been established in 1946 (the same year as the National Blood Service) at the Lister Institute in Chelsea, London.
Your blood group is determined by the genes you inherit from your parents for proteins and sugars on the surface of your red blood cells. There are 35 blood group systems, each of which refers to different proteins or sugars. If you receive blood from a donor with different proteins or sugars, you may have an immune response against the donor blood, rendering the donation useless and risking serious or fatal complications. And blood groups are not only important in transfusion: blood group antibodies produced in a pregnant woman have the potential to harm or even kill her unborn baby.
The unit, with Race as director, was set up in post-war recognition of the need to improve blood transfusions. The discovery of the most well-known blood group system ― ABO ― in the early 1900s had made blood transfusions possible, but there were still many other systems to study. [...]