The man with the golden arm
March 2, 2015 7:23 AM   Subscribe

At age 14, James Harrison had major surgery and required 3.4 gallons of donated blood. As soon as he turned 18, he began donating blood himself, and it was discovered that his blood contained an antibody that, when given to Rh- mothers of Rh+ babies, prevents Rhesus disease.

After the discovery was made, he underwent extensive testing that led to a vaccine called anti-D. While this testing went on, they insured him for a million dollars.

He reached his 1000th plasma donation in 2011, and his donations have helped save over 2.4 million lives.
posted by Blue Jello Elf (24 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for not letting my mom kill me, Mr. Harrison.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:28 AM on March 2, 2015 [29 favorites]

I could swear I saw this here before, but I can't find it. Anyway, it's a great story and very much worth sharing.
posted by TedW at 7:35 AM on March 2, 2015

Guy named Harrison with healing blood? I had no idea Star Trek Into Darkness was a documentary.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 7:40 AM on March 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

An older woman I know lost 5 pregnancies to Rh disease. They could test for it, but abortion was illegal, so she had to wait for the fetus to die and then have a D&E. It was torment.
posted by congen at 7:43 AM on March 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

I could swear I saw this here before, but I can't find it.
posted by TedW at 10:35 AM on March

I remember seeing it posted on Reddit about a year ago. It's the top post of all time in r/todayilearned.

What a wonderful and amazing story.
posted by magstheaxe at 7:51 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

So, one of the standard early prenatal tests is an antibody screen which tests for other antigens within the Rh blood group -- the most important ones being D (which Rh factor commonly refers to), C, c, E and e. There are no injections for C/c/E/e types, and they are rarer than the D type, but they can still affect pregnancies and cause fetal hemolytic disease. Like Rh, it's something that typically develops in second or subsequent pregnancies. It was certainly a shock to me to find that my second pregnancy was suddenly high risk and about to be monitored a lot more closely (and a lot more expensively...) thanks to anti-E antibodies I had developed at some point after delivering my first son.

Current treatment protocol for these is to regularly test maternal blood samples, check antibody blood titer levels, and over a certain threshold, perform regular ultrasounds of the middle cerebral artery to check for anemia, and if anemia is found, the baby may be delivered if late enough in term or a fetal blood transfusion may be performed.

Until fairly recently, regular amniocentesis was performed in lieu of ultrasounds and it can still be used to see if the fetus actually carries the antigen affected by maternal antibodies. This may be what we'd be looking at for a lot more women without Harrison and his golden arm -- if we had even been able to get to this point.
posted by ThatSomething at 8:09 AM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

The somewhat previous you may be thinking of, TedW.
posted by k5.user at 8:30 AM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm insured for a million dollars. I'm surprised the amount was that low.
posted by GuyZero at 8:39 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

That was a lot of money in 1960!
posted by postel's law at 8:43 AM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Fair enough. And it's not perfectly clear from the article, but this guy isn't the sole source of the vaccine right? He just donates now because he wants to?
posted by GuyZero at 8:45 AM on March 2, 2015

I love to see blood (and platelet) donation talked up, I think it's awesome.

That said: I donated platelets every two weeks for a few years, and by the end of it I had a zillion tiny scars on my elbows. That dude's skin must have been leathery like a sea turtle where they did all the needle-sticks!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:46 AM on March 2, 2015

GuyZero: He just donates now because he wants to?

Tragically, over the course of 1000+ donations, he developed Plastic Snack Food Diabeetus from all the free Lorna Doon cookies, Oreos, and apple juice, so now he is forced to return weekly for a sort of maintenance dose of processed sugars and "cream filling." Tragic, really.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:49 AM on March 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

This is cool. My great uncle headed up the research lab that developed the WinRho vaccine in the early 80's

Had no idea how it came about. Bet he knew Harrison pretty well.
posted by Jalliah at 8:53 AM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well, it's too late to name the littlest samovar James, but thanks, Mr. Harrison.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 9:22 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

That's it, k5.user; thanks!
posted by TedW at 9:57 AM on March 2, 2015

I also have a family member who had multiple miscarriages due to Rh incompatibility. Her second child, born in the early 70s, I believe was a result of this guy's awesome blood.
posted by sciencegeek at 10:00 AM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm Rh- and will get my rhogam shot soon. So I'm one of those who benefit directly from this guy, and I didn't even know it.

I thought this part was cool:

The Rhesus factor was discovered by Philip Levine and Rufus E. Stetson in 1939 after they studied a woman who'd had a baby and then subsequently gotten pregnant again, this time with the baby being stillborn. Due to blood loss while giving birth, she was given type-O blood (donated from her husband) which matched her apparent blood type. Despite this, her body reacted to the blood as if she had been given the wrong blood type. Levine and Stetson theorized then that there must be some undiscovered blood group antigen at play here. They also theorized that the mother's immune system must have been sensitized by the fetus' red blood cells, with the baby carrying the father's blood type.

god I love science

Being in Canada, I feel even better about donating blood since medical companies don't make a profit off of it like I've heard they do in the US. I'd be interested in people's input on that one. I had heard that in the US they take your donation and then turn around and sell it, which kind of takes the whole "do good for your unknown neighbor" warm fuzzies and squashes them.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:45 AM on March 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Awesome to see blood donation being talked about so much. I have Gay Poison Blood so I'm not allowed, but urge everyone who is allowed and medically fit to please go donate.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:28 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

That guy's a superhero! I'd like to think I'd do the same thing if I had magical superhero blood.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:41 PM on March 2, 2015

US blood donations can go to a bunch of places - the Red Cross runs clinics which are pretty much the same as the Canadian Blood Services ones (which used to be the Red Cross). Sometimes there are local hospitals that collect blood like the Stanford hospital here in the Bay Area. Then there are private plasma clinics which pay donors and are pretty sketchy.

But most whole-blood donors in the US have a similar experience to what happens in Canada.
posted by GuyZero at 12:46 PM on March 2, 2015

Being in Canada, I feel even better about donating blood since medical companies don't make a profit off of it like I've heard they do in the US. I'd be interested in people's input on that one. I had heard that in the US they take your donation and then turn around and sell it, which kind of takes the whole "do good for your unknown neighbor" warm fuzzies and squashes them.

Profit from blood collection generally goes towards running the nonprofit clinics that take in and then supply the blood for transfusions, not for private companies to turn a profit.

Plasma is another story. You can donate plasma for a small amount of money in many areas of the United States. The American Red Cross and other clinics don't do it because providing people with a cash incentive to donate can lead to them lying about their sexual or medical histories, potentially endangering the safety of the plasma supply

Interestingly enough, the Ontario legislative assembly has been debating a bill which would block clinics paying donors for plasma (Bill 178). Canada has a massive shortage of donated plasma. Guess where it comes from? Europe and the US, which supplies up to 70% of the world's plasma.
Canadians need plasma for two main purposes:

1. Transfusion, requiring 50,000 litres of donated plasma a year.

2. Manufacturing plasma protein products, requiring 1.1 million litres of plasma a year.

Canada is a volunteer blood donor only country, and collects 190,000 litres of plasma a year, more than enough to cover transfusion needs, but not enough for plasma protein products.

Canadian Blood Services sends some of the plasma collected to pharmaceutical companies to be manufactured into plasma protein products. However to meet Canadians’ needs, about 885,000 litres of plasma protein products are bought annually from US or European companies.
If you donate blood or plasma in a hospital in the US, especially one in a large city, and also if you have a rare or universal blood type, there's a greater chance it will be used by that facility.
posted by zarq at 12:51 PM on March 2, 2015

As an Rh- woman who has given birth to two Rh+ children: bless you, James, I owe my son's every smile to you. (Possibly my daughter's, too; we had a couple of non-starters before we had a pregnancy catch, and while they ended early, there's no way of knowing if I would have been sensitized without the Rhogam shot.)

My husband's father was an only child because of Rh incompatibility. Not the only pregnancy, though, not by a long shot; he was born in 1946, and even after they figured out that there was a serious problem after two more late-term fetal demises, access to safe, effective birth control wasn't easy to come by, particularly since my husband's grandmother had a latex sensitivity. She went on to have two additional still births or late term losses, I think, four in total after my father in law was born. It cast a pall over their entire marriage, because every instance of intimacy could mean another dead baby; and then of course my father in law grew up in that house, in that emotional environment. It had effects so much more long-reaching than just the fetal demises.
posted by KathrynT at 1:46 PM on March 2, 2015 [9 favorites]

The video states that all Anti-D manufactured in Australia is derived from this guy's serum. Is that true worldwide as well? I don't mean to be morbid, but what happens when this guy's not around any more? Can Anti-D be synthesized? Have they banked up a huge stockpile of the stuff? Is there some sort of plan in place?
posted by Rhomboid at 6:47 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

This guy makes me weepy with awesomeness.

Some googling suggests that RhoGAM (the US version of the product) does in fact come from donor blood and is not otherwise manufactured or grown. It is "ultra-filtered" according to the RhoGAM manufacturers, but cannot be made completely safe from blood-borne diseases.
"RhoGAM® and MICRhoGAM® Ultra-Filtered PLUS Rho(D) Immune Globulin (Human) are made from human plasma. Since all plasma-derived products are made from human blood, they may carry a risk of transmitting infectious agents, e.g., viruses, and theoretically the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) agent."
feckless fecal fear mongering: " I have Gay Poison Blood so I'm not allowed"

I have (potentially) prion poisoned blood because I went to London too many times, so ditto.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:25 PM on March 2, 2015

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