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Simple Blood Test Checks Sickle Cell Anemia Symptoms Risk

Red blood cell (

Red blood cell (

Researchers from MIT, Harvard, and two Boston hospitals have devised a blood test that assesses the risk a patient with sickle cell anemia will encounter severe symptoms of the disease. Their findings appear in the current issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine (paid subscription required).

The research team also evaluated the test’s potential as a tool for sickle cell anemia drug development, and are seeking a patent for their discovery.

The team led by MIT health science and computer science professor Sangeeta Bhatia, with lead author and MIT postdoc David Wood, and colleagues at Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston developed the blood test using a microfluidics device — sometimes called lab-on-a-chip — that measures how well blood samples flow through the device. The test was designed to indicate the extent of jamming of blood cells, also known as vaso-occlusion, that blocks blood flow and leads to the painful symptoms of the disease.

Sickle cell anemia results from an abnormal type of hemoglobin protein in red blood cells called hemoglobin S. Hemoglobin S changes the shape of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the body, especially when the cells are exposed to low oxygen levels. These red blood cells then become shaped like crescents or sickles, and deliver less oxygen to the body’s tissues. They can also get jammed in small blood vessels (vaso-occlusion), and break into pieces that interrupt healthy blood flow.

In the published study, the researchers recreated conditions that can produce a vaso-occlusive crisis, by directing blood through a microchannel and lowering its oxygen concentration, which triggers sickle cells to jam and block blood flow. For each sample, they measured how quickly blood would stop flowing after being deoxygenized.

Team member John Higgins of Mass General Hospital and Harvard Medical School compared blood samples taken from sickle cell patients who had or had not made an emergency trip to the hospital or received a blood transfusion within the previous 12 months. The results showed that blood from patients with a less severe form of the disease did not slow down as quickly as blood from more severely affected patients.

The findings suggest that the test offers a robust and predictive measure of the risk of sickle cell symptoms. Bhatia says that other blood properties metrics — concentration of red blood cells, fraction of altered hemoglobin, or white blood cell count — cannot make this kind of prediction.

To demonstrate the test’s value in drug development, the team tested a potential sickle cell disease drug called 5-hydroxymethyl furfural that improves hemoglobin’s ability to bind to oxygen. The tests indicate that the drug, when added to blood, can improve the flow of blood through the device.

Read more: Dried Blood Test Developed, Spin-Off Company Formed

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