He may not be the saviour of man-kind, but in any case, James Harrison has saved the lives of nearly two and a half million newborns. Now 81 years old, this Australian has in fact spent 60 years of his life giving blood. It is a lifesaving substance with a unique composition that has made it possible, for decades, to provide a treatment against a potentially fatal disease for the fetus: rhesus disease.
James Harrison’s blood actually contains a very rare antibody known as Immunoglobulin anti D. Once isolated, this substance is injected into mothers whose pregnancy could otherwise be put at risk by the so called ‘maternal-fetal immunisation’. This is a process where mothers produce antibodies that slowly destroy the red blood cells in the child, which can therefore lead to the risk of severe complications at birth.
“We are in a situation where, for many of these babies, a significant amount of red blood cells are destroyed whilst in the womb” explains Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, United States. “This can lead to serious complications for the newborn, including brain damage, jaundice or even stillbirth” says the scientist.
A relatively frequent disorder
In Australia, where James Harrison lives, nearly 17% of pregnant women are affected by this problem and therefore need Immunoglobulin anti-D injections. “Every bottle of this substance ever made in Australia has a little bit of James in it”, says Robyn Barlow in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. Robyn is the coordinator of the Anti-D program, set up by the Blood Donations department of the Australian Red Cross.
This is also the man who was responsible for discovering the surprising advantages of James Harrison’s blood in 1967, the year when the very first dose of anti-D immunoglobulin was injected into a pregnant woman at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. This was the beginning of a long series that continued for sixty years, thanks to the 1,100 donations made by James Harrison. The time has now come for him to take his ‘retirement’ as a donor, after a final donation on May 11th.
A humble hero
Nicknamed ‘the man with the golden arm’, James Harrison remains modest despite the exceptional characteristics of his donations. “He thinks that his donations are the same as anyone else’s. He doesn’t think he’s remarkable” says Jemma Falkenmore, from the blood donation service of the Australian Red Cross. An opinion he’s confirmed himself: “My only talent is probably being able to give my blood”, believes James Harrison.
“Until around 1967 in Australia, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year. The doctors didn’t know why, it was horrible”, Jemma Falkenmire recounts. James Harrison has massively helped to put an end to this tragic situation, probably as a result of coming to close to death himself.
At the age of 14, the Australian went through intense thoracic surgery, during which one of his lungs was removed. After the surgery, he received a huge blood transfusion which not only saved his life, but was also the starting point of his donating career.
After this ordeal, he swore to give blood regularly to save other people’s lives. At 18 years old (the legal age in Australia to become a donor) he kept his promise. He had no idea of the impact his decision would have.
A happy combination of circumstances
At the same time, researchers discovered a very rare antibody which is only present in the blood plasma of a handful of donors. They found it could be used to treat pregnant women whose babies are put at risk by maternal-fetal immunisation. After extensive research in Australian donor banks, the doctors found one particular person: James Harrison. “They asked me to be a guinea pig and I haven’t stopped giving since”, recalls the eighty-something year old.
The transfusion he received led to the discovery of the exceptional properties of his blood. “Following the transfusion, his immune system became overactive and produced a high concentration of antibodies”, claims Saima Aftab. He is certainly one of the only ones to have gained from this phenomenon. However, Australia has a small number of other donors (no more than 200) whose blood is also rich in anti-D immunoglobulin. James recently entered the Guinness World Book of Records after having made 1,173 donations throughout his life and there are many potential successors. “I hope someone beats my record, it means they’re dedicated to the cause”, says James Harrison. Other donors will surely soon take over, in the united and humane journey that the gift of blood represents.