Higgins has rare blood.
But he didn’t know it until a few years ago when an ambitious screening program launched by the BloodCenter of Wisconsin identified his precious blood type. A regular donor since he was a teenager, the 50-year-old Milwaukee resident is now called on even more by the BloodCenter to help patients with the same rare blood.
“There are other people like me out there who need blood,” Higgins says. “I know I can help.”
Because of donors like Higgins, the BloodCenter has developed into a leading provider of rare and uncommon blood, filling needs across the United States and Canada under the leadership of Greg Denomme, senior director of immunohematology and innovation.
Denomme came to the BloodCenter in 2009 to lead a program to find people with precious rare blood types using mass-scale genotyping of regular donors’ blood.
“We typed some 25,000 blood donors in six months,” Denomme recalls. “This had never been done before. From that, we had a database in which we could look for rare blood types.”
Many are familiar with the eight basic blood types: A, AB, B and O, each of which can be positive or negative. “But there are about
350 antigens, and you could be rare for one of these rare antigens,” Denomme explains.
Higgins is O-positive and is missing a protein in his blood, something that affects some African Americans and people from the Caribbean and Asia. The mutation possibly developed as the body’s way to fight off malaria.
Like Higgins, Sarah Gross, 40, of Waukesha, was “completely unaware” of her extremely rare blood type – O-negative and Vel-negative, meaning that she lacks a specific antigen on the surface of her red blood cells – until she began treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia after her diagnosis in December 2017. Gross, whose blood type shows up in about 1 of every 75,000 blood donors, received a bone marrow transplant this summer and has received multiple transfusions of blood, most of which came from rare donors. She also donated some of her own blood to fill her needs.
“I’m so grateful for the rare donor program because sometimes you can’t get blood right away,” Gross says.