ABO Blood Type: Important For More Than Just Transfusions


Not long after Karl Landsteiner first described the different ABO blood types, scientists started looking for associations between blood type and other human traits.  Some of their theories were truly weird (more on these tomorrow!), but some have held up to scientific scrutiny.

Venous Thromboembolism (VTE)
People with non-type O blood (A, B and AB) have been shown to be at increased risk for VTE.  The reason is thought to be that these people have higher levels of the clot-inducing proteins factor VIII and von Willebrand factor in their blood.  Having non-type O blood further raises the already increased risk for VTE in people who carry the Factor V Leiden and prothrombin G20210A mutations.

Since the 1950s, scientists have found that people with type O blood have decreased risk for stomach cancer compared to people with type A.  Other cancers (pancreatic, breast, ovarian, cervical) also occur at lower rates in people with type O blood.  No one is quite sure why this is.  It could be that the sugars found on type A blood cells, which are also expressed by other cells in the body, might somehow help cancers grow more aggressively.  Alternatively, some research has shown that regardless of person’s own blood type, tumors express the type A sugars. In people with type A blood, these sugars go unnoticed by the immune system because they are considered normal.  But in people with type O blood, these new sugars are recognized as foreign, spurring the immune system to destroy the tumors.

Stomach Ulcers
Although stomach cancer is less prevalent in people with type O blood, stomach ulcers are more common in people with this blood type.  The sugars that define the different blood types are also found on cells in the gastrointestinal tract.  Research has shown that these sugars influence the ability of H. pylori, a type of bacteria responsible for a large number of stomach ulcers, to attach to the lining of the stomach.  People with type A or B blood (and hence A or B sugars on their stomach cells) have fewer H. pylori receptors than people with type O.

Severe Malaria
In people infected with malaria, more severe disease is seen in those whose red blood cells are induced to form rosettes, large aggregates that block small blood vessels.  Studies have shown that people with type O blood form fewer, smaller and more easily broken up rosettes than people with type A, B or AB blood.  This is probably because the sugars found on the non-O blood cells end up helping to create larger clumps of cells.

Infectious Disease
Some studies have shown that certain bacterial and viral infections are more or less likely in certain blood types.  For example, type A blood has been linked to a predisposition to “glue ear,” which is caused by infection with Pseudomonas aeruginosa. And some studies suggest that people with type O or B blood are less susceptible to smallpox. The research supporting these and other claims of an impact of blood type on infectious diseases are not as strong as the other associations listed above, however.

(23andMe customers can get a prediction of their ABO blood type based on their DNA data through the new ABO Lab feature.)

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