Blood transfusions: an animal research success story

23 September 2014

Posted by: Stuart Rogers

Category: Staff blog

blood-transfusions-patient.jpgUAR Education Officer Stuart Rogers looks at the animal research involved in the development of blood transfusions

During a first aid training course I attended recently the instructor briefly explained the importance of blood donation. I had never given blood before and being of 0 - blood type (my blood can be given to anyone) I felt it was time to make an appointment.

Walking into the donation hall I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was welcomed by NHS staff and other donors alike as I waited patiently for my turn. 

I was slightly nervous about the idea of allowing someone to puncture me and drain the blood from my body but as the bag started to slowly fill up with my blood I was surprised by how painless the procedure was. In fact the thing that hurt most about the entire process was ripping the plaster off the skin after the wound had healed.

I left the donation hall only an hour after I had entered impressed with how quick and straight forward the procedure was. It’s hard to think of a simpler way to save a life. But what is the history behind this perceived simplicity?

Over the last century medical science has made astounding advances, from using a combination of genetic engineering and coloured light emitting wires to control how neurons store memory to using stem cells to produce laboratory grown human spinal tissue. It seems that technological progress is almost limitless.

The development of blood transfusions is no less impressive when compared to these modern techniques since it began over 300 years ago in 1657. You may be surprised to discover that the pioneer of this treatment was an architect, not a doctor, in fact England’s most famous architect Christopher Wren (designer of St Paul’s Cathedral in London).

In 1657 Christopher Wren made the first step on the path to blood transfusions by performing an intravenous injection by injecting alcohol into a dog’s veins. The next major step had to wait until 1830 when James Blundell transfused blood from his assistant to a woman suffering hemorrhaging after birth, thereby saving her life and performing the first successful human to human transfusion in recorded history.

In a short two years from 1914-1916 huge leaps in progress where made, initiated by Adolph Hustin in 1914 who found that adding sodium citrate to blood prevented it from clotting and that the citrated blood could be safely transfused into dogs. Shortly after in 1915 Richard Weil showed that this citrated blood could be stored for two days and still be effective when transfused into guinea-pigs and dogs that had lost blood. And in 1916 Peyton Rous and Joseph Turner’s work on rabbits demonstrated that with certain additives and proper treatment, blood could be stored for 14 days and then successfully transfused.

blood-transfusion.jpgThese experiments made the prolonged storage of blood possible, enabling the establishment of blood banks and allowing blood transfusion to become a routine procedure.

And what is the value of these centuries of research? 

Approximately 10,000 human lives saved globally every day. Whether it’s giving essential blood to car crash victims or supplying blood to patients undergoing organ transplants, blood transfusions are widely used in a wide range of medical procedures and are considered to be a top contender for the most important medical breakthrough in history. It is even showing promise in increasing the survival rates in victims of the recent Ebola outbreak.

Blood transfusions are also used extensively in Veterinary science. And like most modern medical research, the use of animals was a small but vital component for this live saving practice to be developed.

If you would like to become a blood donor, please click this link.