A 36 year old woman presented to the delivery room at a local county hospital at 39 weeks’ gestation. The doctor ordered a type and screen on the patient, the blood was drawn and sent to the Blood Bank lab. The Blood Bank tech looked up the patient’s Blood Bank history and noted that an antibody screen done at 28 weeks was positive, with an anti-Lea identified. The Blood Bank’s policy is to have 2 units of blood available for any patient with an antibody. As the Blood Bank tech was working on the sample, the physician sent a STAT order for 2 units RBCs for intrapartum hemorrhage.
Are Lewis antibodies clinically significant? AABB defines a clinically significant antibody as one that causes decreased red blood cell survival of transfused cells, one that causes hemolytic transfusion reaction or one that causes Hemolytic Disease of the Fetus and Newborn (HDFN).3 In the Blood Bank, we would always be cognizant of all three criteria, but in this case, we are particularly concerned with HDFN.
The Lewis system is of great interest in immunohematology because of its unique characteristics. The Lewis blood group system is the only one where the antigens are not produced by the red blood cell itself. We learn in immunohematology that red cell antigens are structures that are usually formed on red blood cell membranes, but Lewis stands alone in that the antigens are glycolipids that are formed in the plasma and then passively absorbed onto the red blood cell membrane. This forms a loose attachment and these antibodies can shed or elute off the RBCs in certain circumstances.
Because Lewis antigens are not formed on RBCs, Lewis antigens are not present at birth and therefore not found on cord blood cells. Cord blood and RBCs from newborns will phenotype as Le(a-b-). The saliva of these newborns will have Lea and/or Leb antigens depending on the genes inherited, but the RBCs will test negative for these antigens at birth. By about 10 days of age, the Lewis antigens can be detected in plasma, and they will shortly thereafter begin to be absorbed onto the RBCs. Yet, children do not exhibit their true Lewis phenotype until about age 6.
The development of Lewis antigens is also unique. Lewis antigens are not antithetical, as they result from the interaction of two fucosyltransferases encoded by the Le and Se genes. The Le gene is needed for the production of Lea antigen and the Se gene is needed to form Leb antigen. The three common Lewis phenotypes, Le(a+b-), Le(a-b+) and Le(a-b-) indicate the presence or absence of the Le and Se transferase enzymes.
In pregnancy a mother’s plasma volume increases, and because Lewis antigens are not an integral part of the RBC membrane, they can elute off her RBCs. This causes a decrease in Lewis antigen and some pregnant women, regardless of their true Lewis antigen type, will temporarily type as Le(a-b-). At the same time, because they are now typing Le(a-b-), pregnant women often acquire Lewis antibodies.
Anti-Lea is the most frequently found Lewis antibody, is IgM, and is usually detected at room temperature. In most cases, it is acceptable to give patients with Lewis antibodies RBC units that are crossmatch compatible at 37C without giving antigen negative units. One reason for this is that, as we saw above, Lewis antigens are merely absorbed onto RBCs and can be eluted from transfused red cells within days of transfusion. In addition, when Lewis antigen positive blood is given to Lewis-negative recipients, the Lewis substance in plasma neutralizes antibodies in the recipient. This is why it is extremely rare for anti-Leato cause hemolysis of transfused RBCs. Regardless of Lewis phenotype, RBCs would be expected to have normal in vivo survival.
For an antibody to cause HDFN it must be able to cross the placenta. The antibody must also react with antigens on the red blood cells. Because Lewis antibodies are IgM and do not cross the placenta, and because Lewis antigens are not present on fetal and neonatal erythrocytes, Lewis antibodies have not been implicated in HDFN and this baby is not at risk.
What does this all means in practice? Though the presence of anti-Lewis antibodies in pregnant women is fairly common, both anti-Leaand anti-Leb are naturally occurring IgM antibodies that are not generally considered to be clinically significant. They have low immunogenicity, they do not cause HDFN, they rarely cause hemolysis and do not cause decreased survival of transfused RBCs. This baby is not at risk for HDFN. The mother can safely be transfused with crossmatch compatible RBCs. Her Lea antibodies may be neutralized with a transfusion or will naturally disappear, and her true Lewis phenotype should return within about 6 weeks after delivery.
- Harmening DM: The Lewis System. In Harmening DM, (6th ed): Modern Blood Banking and Transfusion Practices. FA Davis, Philadelphia 2012, pp. 177-180
- Fung, Mark K, ed.: The Lewis System. 18th ed: AABB Technical manual, Bethesda, Md. 2014, pp 304-306
- Fung, Mark K, ed.: PreTransfusion testing. 18th ed: AABB Technical manual, Bethesda, Md. 2014, pp 376
- D. Radonjic et al, The Presence of antibodies in anti-Lewis system in our pregnant women. Giorn.It.Ost.Gin. Vol. XXXII-n.4.Luglio-Agosto 2010.
-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM BB CM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 30 years. She’s worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.