True Blood

Milwaukee Magazine - - INSIDER -

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.

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