James Harrison, whose blood saved over 2.4 million babies retires from donation

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An Australian man whose blood contains a rare antibody with which he estimatedly saved lives of over 2.4 million babies born with an immunity problem has retired, after donating his blood plasma one last time.

James Harrison, now 81, has in his blood an antibody called Rho(D) immune globulin, also known anti-D, which helps to treat complications that arise when a woman with Rh-negative blood has an Rh-positive fetus. Such a condition, called Rh incompatibility, leads to an immune reaction that causes the mother’s immune cells to attack that of the child, putting the baby’s life at risk.

Harrison, who started donating blood since when he was 18, has a very high concentration of anti-D in his blood. For over six decades, he donated blood 1,172 times — 1,162 from his right arm, 10 from his left, according to a report on the Sydney Morning Herald. 

“Very few people have these antibodies in such strong concentrations,” Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Donor Service, told the Herald.

“His body produces a lot of them, and when he donates his body produces more.”

For Harrison, a lung surgery he had to undergo as a 14-year-old, which required him to receive over 7.5 litres of donated blood, was the motivation to donate as much blood back to people.

While scientists are trying to create anti-D in a lab, donors are still their only source. There are very few people who have them naturally. But a small number of people develop them in blood when they are exposed to the wrong kind of blood — probably what happened with Harrison.

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