Serologic Crossmatching

Introduction 

A serological crossmatch, also known as a blood compatibility test, is a vital procedure performed before a blood transfusion to ensure compatibility between the donor’s red blood cells and the recipient’s serum or plasma. In the realm of blood transfusions, ensuring compatibility between recipient and donor blood is paramount. This compatibility check or crossmatching minimizes the risk of potentially life-threatening hemolytic reactions, where the recipient’s immune system attacks the transfused red blood cells.

Here’s how crossmatching achieves this:

  1. Detects ABO incompatibility: Even a slight mismatch in the ABO blood group system can trigger immediate agglutination (clumping) and destruction of donor red blood cells upon transfusion. Crossmatching directly checks for this incompatibility, ensuring only ABO-compatible blood is used.
  2. Identifies irregular antibodies: Some individuals develop antibodies against antigens on red blood cells other than the ABO system. These “irregular antibodies” can target donor red blood cells, leading to delayed hemolysis after transfusion. Crossmatching specifically tests for the presence of such antibodies and their reaction with potential donor blood.
  3. Provides a final safeguard: While blood typing and antibody screening offer initial compatibility checks, crossmatching acts as the final confirmation step. It directly exposes donor red blood cells to the recipient’s plasma/serum, simulating an actual transfusion and revealing any hidden incompatibilities.

Major vs. Minor Crossmatch

Both major and minor crossmatches are performed in serologic compatibility testing for blood transfusions, but they serve different purposes and target different potential risks. 

FeatureMajor CrossmatchMinor Crossmatch
FunctionDetects ABO incompatibility, strong irregular antibodies, and confirms overall compatibility.Detects potential harm from donor antibodies to recipient red blood cells.
Test ComponentsRecipient serum/plasma with donor red blood cells.Donor serum/plasma with recipient red blood cells.
FrequencyMandatory for almost all transfusions.Less frequent, done based on specific scenarios and institutional policies.
SensitivityLess sensitive.More sensitive due to the AHG phase.
Antibody DetectionReadily reacting antibodies.Weaker antibodies that might not be visible in the immediate spin phase.
Clinical SignificanceCrucial for preventing immediate and delayed hemolytic reactions.Additional safety measure, not always mandatory but important in specific cases.

Approaches to Crossmatching

1. Group, Screen and Hold (GSH)

  • Employed when no history of irregular antibodies exists and initial antibody screening (screen) yields negative results.
  • Involves determining recipient ABO and RhD (D positive/negative) type.
  • A compatible unit based on ABO and RhD is selected and “held” pending final compatibility testing.
  • If the immediate crossmatching screen remains negative at a designated time point, the “held” unit is released for transfusion.
  • Applicable to situations where blood transfusions are considered unlikely.

2. Group, Screen and Crossmatch (GXM)

  • Mandatory when
    • Recipient has a history of clinically significant antibodies.
    • Current antibody screen detects unexpected antibodies.
    • Recipient requires rare blood components.
  • Follows ABO and RhD typing of recipient.
  • Antibody screen is performed to detect irregular antibodies.
  • If screen is negative, a full crossmatch is conducted using patient plasma/serum and compatible donor RBCs. This involves:
    • Immediate-spin phase: Detects ABO incompatibility and certain irregular antibodies.
    • AHG phase: Enhances detection of weaker antibodies not evident in the immediate-spin phase.
    • Only units demonstrably compatible in both phases are released for transfusion.

Principle of Serologic Crossmatching

The serological crossmatching acts as the final guardian of transfusion safety. It verifies ABO compatibility and hunts for hidden dangers like antibodies that might've slipped past initial screening. It mixes recipient serum with donor red blood cells, checking for immediate reactions like clumping (agglutination) or breakdown (hemolysis). If these occur, it indicates an incompatible match, prompting further investigation. Conversely, no agglutination in a patient with a negative antibody screen signifies a compatible match, greenlighting the transfusion.
The serological crossmatching is the final checkpoint before a transfusion, ensuring compatibility between donor red blood cells and the recipient’s blood. It functions as a double-check for ABO compatibility and detects even weak antibodies missed by screening tests. By mixing patient plasma with donor cells and observing for clumping (agglutination) or destruction (hemolysis), the test identifies potentially harmful reactions. If such reactions occur, the donor unit is deemed incompatible, and further investigation is needed. Conversely, no clumping indicates compatibility, assuming the patient’s antibody screen was negative. This crucial step helps prevent transfusion complications, ensuring safe and effective blood transfusions.

Serologic crossmatching lies at the heart of ensuring safe blood transfusions. It works on two key principles: agglutination and antigen-antibody reactions.

Agglutination

  • Red blood cells (RBCs) have antigens on their surface, like unique molecular markers.
  • If an incompatible antibody encounters its corresponding antigen, it binds to the RBC, causing agglutination (clumping).
  • This clumping signifies incompatibility and potential for a destructive immune reaction if transfused.

Antigen-Antibody Reactions

  • The crossmatch mixes recipient serum/plasma (containing antibodies) with donor RBCs (possessing antigens).
  • If compatible, no reaction occurs.
  • If incompatible, antibodies bind to their specific antigens on donor RBCs, triggering agglutination.

Major Crossmatch Steps

  • Immediate-spin phase: Detects ABO incompatibility and strong irregular antibodies causing immediate agglutination.
  • AHG (anti-human globulin) phase: Enhances detection of weaker antibodies by coating RBCs with antiglobulin, causing visible agglutination if antibodies are present.

Compatibility Confirmation

  • Only units demonstrating no agglutination in both phases are deemed compatible and safe for transfusion.

Materials

  • Glass tubes labeled for immediate spin phase
  • Micropipettes and sterile tips
  • 2% – 5% suspension of donor red blood cells (RBCs) in saline or EDTA solution
  • Recipient serum/plasma
  • Centrifuge
  • Normal saline (0.9% NaCl) / Low ionic strength solution (LISS)
  • Anti-human globulin (AHG) solution
  • Coombs control cells (CCC)

Protocol

Immediate Spin Phase

The immediate spin phase is the first step in serologic crossmatching, aiming to detect ABO incompatibility and strong, room-temperature reacting irregular antibodies. It’s a quick and preliminary check before the more sensitive AHG phase. 

Disclaimer: Protocols of serologic crossmatching vary depending on regional standards, institutional policies, and specific reagents used due to the specific nature of such procedures and the need for strict adherence to established guidelines and regulations. 

Reliable Resources:

Remember, it is crucial to consult these resources and adapt the protocol according to your specific requirements and institutional guidelines.

  1. Add 1 drop of diluted donor RBCs to the glass tube.
  2. Add 2 drops of recipient serum/plasma to the same tube.
  3. Briefly agitate the tube to ensure thorough mixing and incubate for 5 minutes at room temperature.
  4. Spin the tube at the specified speed and time according to your institutional protocol (typically 900 x g for 20 seconds).
  5. Observe for agglutination by tilting the tube slightly and examine under a good light source or with a mirror. 
  6. Document the presence or absence of agglutination immediately.

Interpretation

  • Agglutination: A positive reaction signifies potential incompatibility requiring further investigation in the AHG phase and possibly additional testing.
  • No agglutination: A negative reaction suggests provisional compatibility, but the crossmatch remains incomplete until the AHG phase confirms the absence of weaker antibodies.

Do not proceed with transfusion based solely on the immediate spin phase. A negative reaction in this phase requires confirmation through the 37°C and AHG phase.

A person performing serologic crossmatching

AHG Phase

  • Some antibodies react weakly and might not cause visible clumping (agglutination) in the immediate spin phase. The AHG phase amplifies the reaction, making these weaker antibodies detectable, thereby preventing potentially harmful transfusion reactions.
  • Increased sensitivity: This phase significantly enhances the sensitivity of the crossmatch process, ensuring compatibility and minimizing transfusion risks.
  • Safeguards patient well-being: By uncovering even weak incompatibilities, the AHG phase plays a crucial role in protecting patients from transfusion-related complications like hemolytic reactions, which can be severe and even life-threatening.
  1. Add 1 drop of LISS reagent to the previous immediate spin phase tubes with negative reactions. 
  2. Briefly agitate the tube to ensure thorough mixing and incubate for 10 – 15 minutes at 37°C.
  3. Spin the tube at the specified speed and time according to your institutional protocol (typically 900 x g for 20 seconds).
  4. Observe for agglutination by tilting the tube slightly and examine under a good light source or with a mirror. 
  5. Document the presence or absence of agglutination immediately for the 37°C phase.
  6. Wash the red cells with normal saline 3 times, discard the supernatant completely after the final wash other than the red cell button.
  7. Add 1 drop of AHG onto the red cells.
  8. Tilt the tube and gently swirl it to mix the AHG with the red cells, ensuring they are completely resuspended.
  9. Place the tube in the centrifuge and spin for 15-30 seconds at 900-1000 g or as per manufacturer’s instructions.
  10. Gently resuspend the cell buttons and observe for agglutination macroscopically.
  11. Grade and record agglutination if present.
  12. In the absence of agglutination after initial centrifugation, add Coombs control cells (CCC) and centrifuge as per manufacturer instructions. Observe and record any agglutination with CCC, confirming test validity.

Interpretation

  • Compatible recipient and donor blood: This outcome indicates no agglutination (clumping) or hemolysis of red blood cells in any of the phases i.e. immediate spin,  37°C and AHG phase with agglutination only in CCC phase; suggesting compatible blood types and a safe transfusion.
  • Incompatible recipient and donor blood: This indicates agglutination in any of the phases i.e. immediate spin, 37°C and AHG phase; usually due to ABO incompatibility or strong irregular antibodies, and signifies an unsafe transfusion risk.
  • Inconclusive: In some cases, results might be unclear or require further investigation using additional tests or techniques before a definitive interpretation can be made.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the chief purpose of performing a serologic crossmatching?

The chief purpose of performing a serologic crossmatching is to maximize the safety of blood transfusions by ensuring compatibility between donor red blood cells and recipient serum/plasma. It serves two primary functions:

1. Detecting ABO incompatibility: This is the most critical aspect, as mismatched ABO blood types can lead to immediate and life-threatening hemolytic reactions. The crossmatching directly exposes donor red blood cells to the recipient’s serum, simulating an actual transfusion and revealing any ABO incompatibility that might have been missed in preliminary tests like blood typing.

2. Identifying clinically significant antibodies: These are antibodies in the recipient’s serum that can react with antigens on donor red blood cells, potentially causing delayed hemolytic reactions. The crossmatch acts as a final safeguard, detecting even weak antibodies that might go unnoticed in other tests, thereby preventing these potential complications.

Major Crossmatch

  • Mandatory for nearly all transfusions.
  • Detects ABO incompatibility, strong irregular antibodies, and confirms overall compatibility.

Minor Crossmatch

  • Less frequent, performed based on specific scenarios and institutional policies.
  • Detects potential harm from donor antibodies to recipient red blood cells.

Overall, the serologic crossmatching plays a crucial role in transfusion medicine by

  • Preventing both immediate and delayed hemolytic reactions.
  • Minimizing transfusion risks by verifying blood compatibility beyond routine blood typing and antibody screening.
  • Offering an additional layer of safety and confidence in transfusion decisions.

What causes positive results in the serologic crossmatching?

A positive result in a serologic crossmatching indicates that incompatibility has been detected between the donor’s red blood cells and the recipient’s serum/plasma. This incompatibility can manifest in various ways, leading to two main types of positive results:

1. ABO incompatibility: This is the most critical and potentially life-threatening cause of a positive crossmatch. It occurs when the recipient’s ABO blood type is incompatible with the donor’s blood type. For example, an A recipient cannot receive O-positive blood due to the presence of A antigens on recipient cells that can react with anti-A antibodies in donor plasma.

2. Antibody-antigen reactions: This happens when the recipient has antibodies in their serum/plasma that can react with specific antigens on the donor’s red blood cells. These antibodies can be naturally occurring or developed from previous transfusions or pregnancies. The reaction between antibodies and antigens causes agglutination (clumping) of red blood cells, visible in the crossmatching test.

Here are some specific causes of positive results due to antibody-antigen reactions:

  • Strong irregular antibodies: These are antibodies directed against antigens other than the ABO blood group system. Examples include Rh antibodies, Kell antibodies, and Duffy antibodies. Even weak forms of these antibodies can cause significant reactions if not detected, hence the importance of the crossmatching.
  • Weak irregular antibodies: These antibodies may not always cause visible agglutination in routine antibody screening tests. However, the AHG phase of the crossmatching amplifies their reaction, allowing detection and preventing potential delayed hemolytic reactions.
  • Autoantibodies: In rare cases, recipients may have antibodies against their own red blood cells. These can also react with donor red blood cells, leading to a positive crossmatch.

Why is minor crossmatch important?

The minor crossmatch plays a crucial role in transfusion safety even though it is not always mandatory as the major crossmatch. 

Detecting Hidden Dangers

  • While the major crossmatch focuses on ABO incompatibility and strong antibodies, the minor crossmatch specifically targets potential risks from donor antibodies reacting with recipient red blood cells.
  • These donor antibodies might not be identified in routine antibody screening or might be weak, causing delayed hemolytic reactions hours or even days after the transfusion.
  • The minor crossmatch acts as an additional safety measure to catch these hidden dangers before they cause harm.

Crucial in Specific Situations

  • The importance of the minor crossmatch increases in specific scenarios like:
    • Recipients with a history of transfusion reactions or known unexpected antibodies.
    • Donors with rare blood types or known strong antibodies.
    • Compatibility needs confirmation for red blood cell components like platelets.
  • In these situations, the minor crossmatch provides valuable peace of mind and potentially prevents delayed reactions.

Complementary Roles

  • It’s important to remember that both major and minor crossmatches work together for optimal transfusion safety.
  • The major crossmatch detects immediate dangers, while the minor crossmatch offers an extra layer of protection against delayed complications.
  • Neglecting the minor crossmatch when potential risks exist can compromise overall safety, highlighting its significant role.
  • Compared to the major crossmatch, the minor crossmatch is typically less complex and involves a shorter testing period.

What is the difference between type screen and crossmatch?

FeatureType and ScreenCrossmatch
PurposeDetermines the ABO blood type and identifies the presence of unexpected antibodies in the recipient’s serum.Ensures compatibility between the recipient’s serum and donor red blood cells before transfusion.
Components TestedRecipient’s blood only (red blood cells and serum/plasma).Recipient’s serum/plasma and donor red blood cells.
ProcedureInvolves ABO blood typing and antibody screening with a panel of red blood cells.Typically involves two phases: Immediate Spin Phase and optional AHG Phase.
Time TakenRelatively quick, usually completed within 30-60 minutes.Takes longer than type and screen, usually 1-2 hours.
OutcomeIdentifies the ABO blood type and presence of unexpected antibodies, but does not confirm compatibility with a specific donor unit.Provides a definitive answer about compatibility between the recipient and a specific donor unit.
When PerformedOften done before a transfusion is needed, especially when time is not critical.Performed immediately before a transfusion, or when there is a concern about compatibility.
CostLess expensive than crossmatch.More expensive than type and screen.
SafetyProvides a basic level of safety by identifying major incompatibilities.Offers the highest level of safety by ensuring compatibility with a specific donor unit.

What is the difference between compatibility testing and crossmatching?

The terms “compatibility testing” and “crossmatching” are often used interchangeably in the context of blood transfusions, but there are slight nuances in their meaning and scope:

Compatibility Testing

  • Broader term: Encompasses all tests performed to ensure compatibility between recipient and donor blood before a transfusion.
  • Includes
    • Blood typing: Determining the ABO and Rh blood group of both recipient and donor.
    • Antibody screening: Testing the recipient’s serum for unexpected antibodies to red blood cell antigens.
    • Crossmatching: The specific test that directly mixes recipient serum/plasma with donor red blood cells to detect agglutination or other reactions indicating incompatibility.
  • Overall aim: Identifies potential risks of incompatibility to maximize transfusion safety.

Crossmatching

  • Specific test: Focuses on mixing recipient serum/plasma with donor red blood cells.
  • Types:
    • Major Crossmatch: Mandatory for most transfusions, detects ABO incompatibility, strong irregular antibodies, and overall compatibility.
    • Minor Crossmatch: Performed in specific situations to detect potential harm from donor antibodies to recipient red blood cells.
  • Outcome: Provides a definitive answer about compatibility between the specific recipient and donor involved in the transfusion.

Key Differences

  • Scope: Compatibility testing is a broader umbrella term encompassing all procedures, while crossmatching refers to a specific test within that umbrella.
  • Focus: Compatibility testing aims at identifying potential risks, while crossmatching directly verifies compatibility with a specific donor unit.
  • Information: Compatibility testing provides general information about blood types and antibodies, while crossmatching offers a conclusive answer for the intended transfusion.

Why do we wash cells during cross matching?

The main reason cells are washed during crossmatching, particularly in the AHG phase, is to remove plasma proteins and other potential interfering substances that might affect the accuracy of the test. 

Benefits of Washing Cells

  • Enhanced Sensitivity: Washing removes unbound antibodies and plasma proteins, allowing the AHG reagent (anti-human globulin) to specifically bind to any weak antibodies attached to red blood cells. This amplifies the reaction and makes it easier to detect even slight incompatibilities that might be missed without washing.
  • Reduced Background Reactions: Certain plasma proteins can interact with red blood cells in ways that mimic antibody-antigen reactions, leading to false positives in the crossmatch. Washing eliminates these potential interfering substances, improving the precision of the test.
  • Standardized Conditions: By removing variable plasma components, washing ensures a more standardized environment for the AHG reaction, allowing for consistent and reliable interpretation of results across different units.

Types of Washes

  • Saline washes: Remove plasma proteins, unbound antibodies, and other soluble elements.
  • Albumin washes: In specific situations, may be used to retain some albumin while removing other potential interferents.

Disclaimer: This protocol is intended for informational purposes only and may need to be modified depending on the specific laboratory procedures and patient circumstances. Always consult with a qualified healthcare professional for guidance. See additional information.

References

  1. American Association of Blood Banks (AABB). Technical Manual, 21st Edition, 2023.
  2. Dean L. Blood Groups and Red Cell Antigens [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Center for Biotechnology Information (US); 2005. 
  3. Bain BJ, Bates I, Laffan MA. Dacie and Lewis Practical Haematology: Expert Consult: Online and Print 12th Edition (Elsevier). 2016.
  4. International Society of Blood Transfusion. https://www.isbtweb.org/resources/resources-library.html

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