What lies beneath the surface of our skin is the beautiful and busy world of blood. To coincide with National Science Week, take a closer look at blood.
What lies beneath the surface of our skin is the beautiful and busy world of blood. To coincide with National Science Week, take a closer look at blood.

Everything you need to know about blood

We may be warm-blooded creatures, but human haemoglobin is just plain cool.

And there is no better way to celebrate National Science Week than by taking a closer look at the hardworking, heroic red globules that give each and every one of us our get up and go.

The three main components of blood work together something like an internal team of tradies, according to Associate Professor Justin Hamilton from the Australian Centre of Blood Diseases.

"You've got the red cells. They deliver oxygen and nutrients to the rest of your body, so they're like the delivery system," he said.

"You've got the white cells and they fight infection, so they're like your personal bodyguard against viruses and bacteria.

"Then you've got the platelets, which are the blood clotting cells. They prevent you from bleeding, so they're like the repairman.

"So you've got the delivery system and a bodyguard and a repair system all built in the blood."

Associate Professor Justin Hamilton from the Australian Centre for Blood Diseases. Picture: Supplied
Associate Professor Justin Hamilton from the Australian Centre for Blood Diseases. Picture: Supplied

Blood research has changed a lot, largely because vastly improved technology enables researchers like Assoc Prof Hamilton to see things much more clearly and easily now.

"With high-powered microscopy, we can look at what the cells are doing when they're doing their jobs, and follow them around with microscopes much better than we used to," he said.

Blood tests today are also so quick and simple it's easy to forget how impressive they are, revealing everything from high cholesterol levels to foetal genetic disorders.

"Because blood is easy to get from people … it's a great place to try and identify biomarkers of health or disease," Assoc Prof Hamilton said.

"These biomarkers are usually proteins … in the blood that signal that a particular disease process is going on, so (a blood test) is a great way to be able to test for that relatively quickly and easily."

Testing in the lab at the Australian Centre for Blood Diseases. Picture: Supplied
Testing in the lab at the Australian Centre for Blood Diseases. Picture: Supplied

Ongoing blood supply is vital for treating patients of all ages across a huge spectrum of treatment - but blood donation has only been around for a century.

Dr Alison Gould, scientific communications specialist at the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood, said the early days of donation were rudimentary, not to mention high risk.

"The very first successful transfusion of blood was performed in 1818. That was from somebody giving blood from their arm, directly into a patient," she said.

"They didn't understand about blood group compatibility, so that was a dangerous thing to do."

Dr Gould said it wasn't until 1900 that the three main blood groups were discovered. From there, the need to match various blood groups was confirmed, which was a major leap forward.

Dr Alison Gould, scientific communications specialist, the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood. Picture: Supplied
Dr Alison Gould, scientific communications specialist, the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood. Picture: Supplied

However, there was still no way of storing blood, which would clot shortly after leaving the donor. It wasn't until 1916 that a solution was found, kicking off blood banking just in time for World War I.

"War and medicine tend to go together," Dr Gould said.

"Australia's first blood transfusions started in Victoria in 1929. It was run by Dr Lucy Bryce (and) a lot of women ended up running it during World War II.

"It grew phenomenally. While the men were away at war, the women doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians grew this blood service from a tiny little thing into thousands of donations a year."

Now blood can be frozen, stored and shipped.

The Australian Red Cross Lifeblood team has been supplying deep frozen red cells, platelets and plasma to the Australian Defence Force for use overseas.

The same storing method will potentially revolutionise supply in rural and regional Australia as well, with deep frozen platelets lasting a couple of years instead of just seven days.

"From needing a live person right by your bedside, we're now testing deep frozen platelets that could (originate) in Tasmania, for instance, and be shipped up to Darwin," Dr Gould said.

"But the thing I love most is that our blood is red because it's got iron in it from exploding stars.

"When a dying star shrinks, collapses and explodes, it scatters all its elements as dust across the universe and that's where our iron comes from. On our planet, we've evolved to pick up that stardust and turn it into something that supports life."

Bags of plasma. Picture: Courtesy of the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood
Bags of plasma. Picture: Courtesy of the Australian Red Cross Lifeblood

DID YOU KNOW?

Associate Professor Justin Hamilton and Dr Alison Gould would be very handy teammates in a blood themed trivia quiz.

Here are some of their favourite facts.

 

1. Human blood is red, but octopus blood is blue and skink blood is green.

2. Snot is yellow because of white blood cells that died fighting off infection.

3. Urine is yellow and stools are rusty brown because of the "ghosts" of red blood cells.

4. Blood cells are made inside our bones at the rate of about three million blood cells every second.

5. Each blood group is a protein sitting on the surface of your red blood cells and is determined by your genes.

6. There are many more blood groups than just A, B and O - there are 41 different families of blood group types.

7. One in three people will need blood or blood products during their lifetime, but only about one in 30 Australians donate.

8. Some blood groups are more or less susceptible to infectious diseases like malaria.

The malaria parasite uses the Duffy protein on red cells to invade them, but 90 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africans have evolved not to have the Duffy protein blood type on their red cells, giving them a degree of immunity to the disease.

9. Haemophilia is a blood disorder in which blood doesn't clot normally, leading to excessive bleeding after injury. It's sometimes called the royal disease as it affected European royalty in the 19th and 20th centuries. Queen Victoria is believed to have been a carrier.

10. Feeling faint? Fainting at the sight of blood is associated with a vasovagal reaction, meaning a sudden drop in blood pressure. It's believed to be related to our evolutionary fight or flight response as a way of getting out of danger.

 

For more tips visit donateblood.com.au

 

Originally published as Everything you need to know about blood


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