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Inside The Lifesaving Search For Sickle Cell Blood Matches

Cincinnati Children's
This image shows a patient's blood screen in which you can see normal round blood cells and the cells that are becoming misshaped and taking on a sickle-like form.

Sickle cell patients face a lifetime of getting blood transfusions because there's no cure for the disease. It's a fact of life for brother and sister Taryn Walker, 14, and King Walker, 11, both students at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Credit provided
Eleven-year-old King Walker has to get monthly blood transfusions because of his sickle cell disease.

Their mother, Charmelle, explains: "To be normal, they get these blood transfusions to make them have their regular activities. So they play baseball. They play basketball. They dance. Just so they can have normal, pain-free lives, we have to do this every four weeks."

Credit provided
Taryn Walker and her brother are students at the School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Before they get the blood at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, scientists at Hoxworth have to find a genetic match. It's a complicated process that Gregory Halverson, assistant director of the center's Immunohematology Reference Lab, and others conduct.

They are looking for that perfect match with 36 known different blood groups with well over 300 antigens.

According to Halverson, "We try to match what they don't have because we don't want them to make the antibody because it makes it more and more difficult to find blood for transfusions."

The Walkers are African American, and Hoxworth says more blood from African Americans is needed, as only about 4 percent of the center's donors are black. One in every 500 African American children is born with sickle cell disease, and African American donors often provide a closer match. In the meantime, Chief Medical Officer David Oh says they make do. "There are actually genetic or molecular tests that we can perform which should help us in terms of finding compatible blood," he says.

Halverson says certain donors are flagged as a rare donor. "We get a printout everyday and...we can select their blood out of the collection and put them in our inventory so they don't go out to the random population."

His lab provides rare blood by maintaining local liquid and frozen rare blood inventories and by participating in the American Rare Donor Program, a national search service.

Researchers around the world are on a quest to make blood. They've already done it in a lab, but in drops not pints. Cincinnati's Hoxworth Blood Center says that will be a game-changer, but it's likely a decade away. Until then, the very exact science of matching blood for transfusions continues.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.