The new group, named “Er”, is said to be extremely rare among the general population. Nonetheless, the discovery means that doctors and patients now have an extra tool to understand why some people mysteriously die of blood complications during pregnancies or transfusions.
“Discovering a new blood-group system is like discovering a new planet. It enlarges the landscape of our reality,” said assistant professor Daniela Hermelin, at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine - who was not involved in the study - in an interview with Wired magazine.
While most people are familiar with blood groups such as ABO or Rh, many other groups exist.
The trouble arises when someone receives blood that is mismatched with their own type. The body can produce antibodies to fight off what it sees as an “invader”, triggering serious reactions in the immune system.
Sadly, this is how researchers from Bristol’s School of Biochemistry and NHSBT’s International Blood Group Reference Laboratory (IBGRL) discovered the new blood group.
Two pregnant women discovered they had the super-rare Er blood types when their unborn fetuses tragically passed away, following complications in their blood discovered by doctors.
Samples of their blood were sent to the Bristol researchers, who were shocked when they realised a new blood group was staring back at them.
The findings were then plugged into research looking into unknown blood groups that went back 30 years, as part of an international collaboration, solving a decades-long mystery.
Indeed, complications and deaths from mismatched blood types were a much more common occurrence before scientists understood the concept of blood groups.
The new discovery is likely to help prevent future complications and deaths from blood incompatibility, as many of these can now be attributed to the Er group. Catching signs of blood incompatibility early during pregnancies can be the difference between life and death, as doctors could administer the correct blood transfusions in the womb, for example.
And of course, those among us who have the Er group will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that it can be correctly identified, reducing chances of incompatibility during operations or transfusions.