Karl Landsteiner and Alexander Wiener discovered the rhesus or Rh blood type, named after rhesus monkeys in 1937. Following this blood grouping discovery, the Winnipeg Rh Laboratory was founded by Dr Bruce Chown in 1944 to study Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn (HDN) or Rh Disease. This disease occurs when there is an incompatibility between the blood types of the mother and the fetus. The mother is Rh negative, and the father is Rh positive. The mother reacts to the fetal blood by making antibodies to the Rh antigen which if untreated can lead to death.
The first treatment of HDN using a blood exchange transfusion occurred in New York in early 1945 to reduce maternal anibodies. The first exchange transfusion in Winnipeg took place in July 1945. This helped cut deaths in half, however one in four HDN babies died still died.
By 1951, Dr Chown introduced early delivery of HDN babies which further reduced the death rate to one in six cases.
In 1961, Dr John Bowman, Clinical Director of the Rh Laboratory, following the pioneering work of Sir William Liley, from New Zealand, started transfusing HDH fetuses to reduce anti-Rh (Anti-D) antibodies. This reduced mortality to 1 in 25 cases. This practise saved 357 HDN babies by this fetal blood transfusion technique.
Work conducted in New York City, Liverpool, England and the Winnipeg Rh Laboratory demonstrated that use of Anti-D antibody (Rh Immune Globulin) infused into Rh negative women with Rh positive fetuses prevented them from developing Rh antibodies and therefore prevented HDN.
Rh Immune Globulin was utilized in many countries which drove down the death rate associated with HDN.
In 1969 Winnipeg Rh Institute was created to allow collection of Anti-D plasma from former HDN patients treated by Dr Bowman via plasmapheresis. This procedure separated anti-D antibody containing plasma from blood that was used for manufacture of Rh Immune Globulin. In 1971 the Institute started to develop a new intravenous product with became licensed in Canada in 1980 as WinRho Immune Globulin. “Win” was a tribute to Winnipeg where the donors and development took place.
Between 1987-1994 there were only 3 deaths in contrast to 141 between 1962-1969- a reduction rate of 98%. A great Canadian success story.