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Blood type testing: Our molecular detectives

As a blood donor, you probably already know your blood type as some combination of A, B, O and then a positive or negative. Apart from these, there are many other blood groups out there (you can read about blood types and why they matter here). Each blood group is a marker on the outside of your red blood cells.  In some patients it's important that we match blood transfusions closely to avoid problems.

When your blood arrives at one of our Lifeblood processing centres, some of our team test a sample of your blood while others process your donation.  We test the blood type of every donation before we send it to hospitals. That means we do thousands of blood type tests every day!

Behind the scenes, we have a dedicated team of scientists, technicians and high-tech equipment to test your donations accurately and get them to hospitals as quickly as possible.

Routine testing

When you first give blood, we test it using two different methods, so we can be extra sure of the result. “We test your blood type each time you come to give blood or platelets, and we cross check the results with your previous donations to guard against any mix-ups” explains Sue Ismay (Scientific Director, Manufacturing and Quality). Each of these tests takes a tiny drop of blood (to be precise, it’s about 1/250th of a teaspoon, or 20 microlitres).

These tests rely on detector molecules known as antibodies that tag the blood group markers on your red cells. They work well for more than 99% of samples. These tests use sophisticated automated equipment, and we review and manage the results using specialised software.  “In recent years, many processes that used to be done by hand have been automated. This increases the quality and consistency of the product, and makes work safer for our staff who are exposed to blood during testing.  We’re able to process more samples and ultimately benefit more patients. This speed of testing is especially important for products with short shelf lives, like platelets” says Sue.

The tricky cases

If the automated system produces an unusual result, our specialists in the Red Cell Reference laboratory, led by Tanya Powley, swing into action. They use years of experience to interpret subtle results that may be missed by high-throughput machines.  Scientists in this team, along with their collegues in Research and Development, use state of the art genetic testing and a battery of specialised biological tests. Some tests use unlikely materials such as guinea pig urine and pigeon egg white. (Keep your eye on our future blogs for more details).

Because they are often charting new territory, red cell reference scientist's processes aren’t all automated. Each investigation is tailor-made, and although some cases can be solved very quickly, others may take years and a team of international experts to solve. Our red cell reference scientists are molecular detectives, and they never give up!

When a problem is particularly tricky, Tanya and her team collaborate with the Lifeblood Research and Development team and specialists around the world. Just like detectives, our laboratories are pulling out some “cold cases” that we couldn't solve with previous technology.  By using new technology on these cases, we now see new blood groups being discovered every year.

 “I will retire when I stop having questions to ask” says Tanya “or when I stop having the capacity to ask them”.


Dr Alison Gould

Scientific Communications Specialist

At Lifeblood, Alison works with members of the Research and Development team to share their stories of science with their colleagues, collaborators and the public. Alison trained in chemistry and biochemistry, and gained a PhD in biochemistry from the University of New South Wales. She worked as a researcher in the biotechnology industry developing and manufacturing biopharmaceuticals. She loves working with scientists from all disciplines, and helping others understand the significance of their research.

Member of the Australia Science Communicators
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This Saturday will mark Donation number 45 for me. I have been donating since I was 19! I hope I can do many more! I enjoy these insights it’s interesting to see what happens to my blood each time I donate.

What a great effort-we hope you can do many more as well. Good luck on Saturday, you're a hero.

Thanks for this explanation of a fascinating process and technology. I'm wondering if you analyse the masses of data you obtain for population health trends, or even trends in the health of the individual donor, and whether this can "add value" to the great work you already do? (I'm reminded of the advent of "big data" and "data mining", and how this is being harnessed in other industries.)

Hi Peter You're right, we do have masses of data! We use our data within our organisation to help us manage supply and demand, improve our processes and to keep our donors happy and healthy. In recent years we've partnered with the SAX institute in NSW in the 45-and-up study, to compare the health of blood donors with the general population. You can read more about this work in the "Donor Health and Wellbeing" section of our Research Annual Report at this link (check out page 30):

I started giving plasma because of a good friend who has given just on 400 donations convinced me to start donating to save a life .

Good on you Peter! I hope you have many happy plasma donations ahead of you. I wonder if you'll make it to 400?

I would like to see educational and blood promo videos while I am lying there giving my plasma / blood. Stories about what happens to my donations and how they are processed and who gets them and why would be interesting would be better than a screen with the sound so low I cant hear it anyway!

What a good idea! I particularly like the idea of educational videos and perhaps bluetooth headphones to tone down the noise?

Hi Helen Thanks for letting us know your interest in what we do with your donation behind the scenes. Next time you're donating, why not use our free WiFi and check out some of our TV series "Giving Life" on your device? You can watch either short highlights or whole episodes ( a whole epsisode is around 40 minutes, so it's perfect to watch during a plasma donation!). You can find them all on our website:

Great idea!

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The information on this blog is presented by the Lifeblood’s Research and Development Team for the purposes of sharing general information and facilitating discussion about blood donation. It is not intended to be used or relied upon as medical advice. If you have a medical question, please consult your GP or health professional. For information on blood donation, or to find out if you’re eligible to donate, call 13 14 95.