A new model showing how sickle cell blood cells operate within bone marrow has been developed by researchers at Imperial College London. The developers hope that it will eventually be used by clinicians to advance more effective treatments for sickle cell disease.
This disease causes red blood cells to become misshapen and rigid, meaning that they cannot move as easily around the body as normal flexible red blood cells. When the cells are travelling through tiny vessels, they get stuck and create blockages. This prevents the supply of oxygen to tissue, which leads to severe pain and can cause organ failure.
The model under development at Imperial mimics the movement of oxygen and all the cells in the bone marrow. Ultimately, this should make it possible to analyse how the cells would react to different drugs. Examining the living bone marrow that produces blood cells is difficult because currently it can only be looked at through very invasive surgery.
Robin Kumar, who presented a paper about the model at the Biomed 2005 Conference in Innsbruck this month, said that “Sickle cell disease is a chronic condition, causing a lot of pain, making people prone to infections, and causing them to need regular medical attention. Our model is the first to show the way oxygen is delivered in the bone marrow of people with the disease, with the best representation of the tissue region. It gives a better understanding of the disease’s effect on bone marrow and we hope that in due course this will assist in the development of superior drugs to fight the disease.”
The model uses a number of mathematical equations to describe the functions and behaviour of the various cells within the bone marrow, such as red and white blood cells, platelets and those stem cells that produce fat, cartilage and bone. The behaviour of these cells, and the effects of oxygen upon them, can then be measured in relation to healthy bone marrow and the bone marrow of those with sickle cell disease.
“This research is in its very early stages. However, the model is a step towards enabling scientists and clinicians to both understand how the disease affects bone marrow and to develop more effective treatments than the ones currently available,” added Dr Sakis Mantalaris, the lead researcher on the study.