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In EClinicalMedicine

Background : Observational studies determining the effect of red blood cell (RBC) donor sex on recipient mortality have been inconsistent. Emulating hypothetical randomized target trials using large real-world data and targeted learning may clarify potential adverse effects.

Methods : In this retrospective cohort study, a RBC transfusion database from the Capital Region of Denmark comprising more than 900,000 transfusion events defined the observational data. Eligible patients were minimum 18 years, had received a leukocyte-reduced RBC transfusion, and had no history of RBC transfusions within the past year at baseline. The doubly robust targeted maximum likelihood estimation method coupled with ensembled machine learning was used to emulate sex-stratified target trials determining the comparative effectiveness of exclusively transfusing RBC units from either male or female donors. The outcome was all-cause mortality within 28 days of the baseline-transfusion. Estimates were adjusted for the total number of transfusions received on each day k, hospital of transfusion, calendar period, patient age and sex, ABO/RhD blood group of the patient, Charlson comorbidity score, the total number of transfusions received prior to day k, and the number of RBC units received on each day k from donors younger than 40 years of age.

Findings : Among 98,167 adult patients who were transfused between Jan. 1, 2008, and Apr. 10, 2018, a total of 90,917 patients (54.6% female) were eligible. For male patients, the 28-day survival was 2.06 percentage points (pp) (95 % confidence interval [CI]: 1.81-2.32, P<0.0001) higher under treatment with RBC units exclusively from male donors compared with exclusively from female donors. In female patients, exclusively transfusing RBC units from either male or female donors increased the 28-day survival with 0.64pp (0.52-0.76, P<0.0001), and 0.62pp (0.49-0.75, P<0.0001) compared with the current practice, respectively. No evidence of a sex-specific donor effect was found for female patients (0.02pp [-0.18-0.22]). The sensitivity analyses showed that a large unknown causal bias would have to be present to affect the conclusions.

Interpretation : The results suggest that a sex-matched transfusion policy may benefit patients. However, a causal interpretation of the findings relies on the assumption of no unmeasured confounding, treatment consistency, positivity, and minimal model misspecifications.

Funding : Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Innovation Fund Denmark.

Bruun-Rasmussen Peter, Andersen Per Kragh, Banasik Karina, Brunak Søren, Johansson Pär Ingemar


Causal inference, Donor sex, Machine learning, Red blood cell transfusion, Target trial emulation, Targeted maximum likelihood estimation