Inside the Blood Factory That Keeps Track of the World's Rare Donors

By Ashley Feinberg on at

When most of us think of "rare blood," we think of Type O-negative. But it turns out there are far, far rarer types than that. In Filton, Gloucestershire, there's a lab that handles blood donations from across the UK and identifies this super-rare blood.

Photographer Greg White recently got a tour of the NHS Blood & Transplant lab while on assignment for the science publication Mosaic; the resulting photos are stark, lovely, and a bit terrifying. Why terrifying? Well, as you can read in Penny Bailey's fascinating Mosaic story from October, the International Blood Group Reference Laboratory (part of the NHS Blood & Transplant) keeps track of what Bailey calls "golden blood," because of its extraordinarily rare occurrence and its ability to save the lives of the few people who share it.

Inside the Blood Factory That Keeps Track of the World's Rare Donors

As well as tracking blood donations from around the UK, the lab's research initiatives relating to blood and transfusion include keeping a reference database of those rare humans who share extremely unusual blood, should anyone need a bag. Inside the NHS lab in Filton, scientists test all the blood donated from around southern England, determining everything from blood type to the presence of harmful viruses. From Mosaic:

Rare blood (shared by 0.1 per cent or less of the population) goes through exactly the same process, but ends up on a separate shelf. Some units will be sent to Liverpool and frozen for up to ten years. The same goes for very rare blood (shared by under 0.01 per cent of people) – except this blood is taken through the entire process on its own, by one person. It's too precious to risk any mistake. Hospitals and research laboratories pay the standard £125.23 for a bag of blood, regardless of how common or rare it is.

The IBGRL, which studies blood and maintains the rare donor list, has been around since the 1940s, and it's where many major advances in blood science have taken place, like the discovery of many new antigens, which are the molecules in our blood that invoke immune responses, and the presence or absence of which determine our blood types. But one of its most important roles is keeping track of rare blood donors, both so that they can donate to other rare blood type patients in need, and for equally vital research purposes.

Inside the Blood Factory That Keeps Track of the World's Rare Donors

Inside the Blood Factory That Keeps Track of the World's Rare Donors

So what was it like to shoot the inside of the NHS lab where blood is sorted? White describes it as "a constant hum of machines and conveyors while people swiftly moved about in their blue coats, hats and hair nets." Blood, of course, is fragile—it must be kept at exactly 4°C, otherwise, it could develop infections or the cells could be destroyed. And when blood is this rare, a spare bag is out of the question.

Inside the Blood Factory That Keeps Track of the World's Rare Donors

Inside the Blood Factory That Keeps Track of the World's Rare Donors

According to White, much of the activity in the lab occurred at strange hours, because new blood arrives at the lab overnight after being donated in the afternoon. "The processing of the blood therefore happens from about 3 am onwards," White says. "So by 6 am it's pretty busy and full of fresh blood thats being filtered having the white blood cells removed."

Inside the Blood Factory That Keeps Track of the World's Rare Donors

Inside the Blood Factory That Keeps Track of the World's Rare Donors

"At first it was a bit weird to be surrounded by so much blood," he adds. "But you soon become enthralled in the space and the process and at ease with the blood. In fact, it's quite uplifting thinking about how much blood is actually donated, although there could always be more."

In a way, this lab is like the UN for blood, a central institution where the world's hospitals and doctors come for help and information, and it's fascinating to see the inside of such an important space. Mosaic's full story on rare blood donors is well worth a read here.