Exploring the connection between COVID-19 and ABO blood groups

Lori West

Lori West

When Lori West’s husband became seriously ill with COVID-19 last March, she felt scientifically useless. Although she is one of Canada’s best transplantation researchers, she thought she had nothing to contribute scientifically to the fight against the pandemic.

It turns out, she was wrong. By late March, reports began emerging of increased susceptibility to COVID-19 and worse outcomes in people who have certain ABO blood types, particularly those with A blood type. The question was, why?

West and her team, whose research usually focuses on blood type issues in organ transplant patients, immediately joined the search for the answer. “We were able to pivot really quickly because we are experts in ABO and we already had the tools,” she says.

Preliminary work on the project, supported by WCHRI and the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation, produced results that allowed them to secure significant funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to purchase and install equipment to test blood samples from COVID-19 hotspots around the world.

Over the last decade at the University of Alberta, West and her chemistry collaborators have developed unique tools that allow them to study ABO blood group immunology and sugars. Using a new technique with microbeads covered in blood group sugars, they are now looking at levels of blood group antibodies in the serum of patients who have had COVID-19, to determine the role those antibodies play in the disease.

Almost no one else in the world is looking at this because they don’t have the tools that we have. So we are making it available to them.”

They are also investigating whether blood group sugars in the lungs enhance the binding of the COVID-19 virus receptor, which could increase susceptibility to the disease.

There’s been global interest in this ground-breaking research, says West, a professor of pediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. “Almost no one else in the world is looking at this because they don’t have the tools that we have. So we are making it available to them. We’ve said ‘send us the serum from your patients’ and they’re gladly doing that.”

She stresses that the blood group findings look at risk on a population, not an individual, level. “There are many A people who haven’t got the disease and many O people who have…. No matter what group you are in, you need to follow all public-health guidelines.”

The impact of her research could be significant. Establishing that people with certain blood types are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 and developing complications could lead public-health authorities to modify quarantine strategies.

And with evidence that higher levels of certain blood group antibodies are protective against COVID-19, those blood group antibodies could be added to a cocktail of other antibodies to treat patients with severe COVID-19. With greater understanding of the role of blood sugars in the lungs, therapies could be developed to interrupt the connections between those blood sugars and the COVID receptor.

There might even be a role in enhancing the efficacy of current vaccines using the knowledge West and her team are developing in the lab.

West has been surprised at how receptive her global colleagues are to new ideas about how to fight COVID.

“I’ve been amazed at the remarkable creativity and collegiality of the scientific community,” says West, who was recently appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of her career in organ transplantation science. “It’s just extraordinary how the scientific world has come together on this.”

West's research is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.

Lori West