Sickle cell disease alters the shape and stickiness of red blood cells. (Credit: Grace Gongaware)

Researchers are developing a small, portable blood-adhesion monitor for sickle cell disease patients. The engineers and doctors hope to make the device as useful as the at-home insulin monitors diabetes patients use to manage their disease.

Early versions of the monitor have proved capable of determining whether cells are sticky and the level of stickiness. The researchers want to know whether this information will make a difference in patients’ lives or in how the disease is managed. The device may also be useful in monitoring new sickle cell drugs designed to either block adhesive proteins on blood-cell surfaces or resolve clogs that block blood vessels and starve joints and organs of oxygen.

In the prototype monitor, blood flows through channels as wide as three to four cells across, reproducing microvessel size inside the body. The channel lining mimics the properties of endothelial cells lining blood vessels. Under a microscope, researchers can see cells stick to channel walls and determine the stickiness and number per unit volume of blood.

Ultimately, take-home versions of the monitor would enable patients or parents to use the test daily to manage their condition. If the monitor proves effective during testing, the researchers plan to commercialize the device, which could have applications in other diseases and conditions that cause changes in red blood cell properties.