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How mechanical engineers see red blood cells

During its 120 day lifetime, each of your red blood cells completes around 170 000 circuits of your body, travelling around 500 km. In each circuit a red blood cell needs to squeeze through tiny capillaries where it can deliver oxygen to the surrounding tissues. It’s a remarkable feat, and one that becomes more difficult for older blood cells, especially those that have been stored outside the body before a transfusion.

 “Red blood cells become less flexible as they age. They also change from their flattened disc shape to a spherical shape which doesn’t  function as efficiently. When we store blood for transfusion, these changes happen more quickly than they do in the body. Understanding what triggers the changes may help us find ways to make stored blood last longer” explains Professor Robert Flower, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service.

These changes suggest that something has changed in the network of molecules that supports the cell. Structural supports and changes in flexibility are areas that engineers understand really well, so to understand the changes in flexibility of red blood cells, researchers at the Australian Red Cross Blood Service have formed what may seem an unlikely alliance with mechanical engineers at Queensland University of Technology.

The researchers have used computer modelling methods to develop a mathematical model of red blood cells. The computer model describes the shape and physical behaviour of red blood cells using the concept of a network of springs and anchors inside a flexible casing, which  represents the membrane that surrounds the red blood cell. The model can then be used to predict real world outcomes that may be difficult to test otherwise. For example, the computer model shows us how red blood cells could flex and squeeze through a narrow capillary. In future it may help us to select storage solutions that will keep blood cells fresh for longer after donation.

Prof Flower and his team are working with Prof YuanTong Gu and colleagues from the School of Chemistry, Physics and Mechanical Engineering at Queensland University of Technology on the project, which is funded by a grant of $350 000 from the Australian Research Council. Doctoral candidates Sarah Barns and Marie Anne Balanant will work on two sides of the project, with Sarah developing the theoretical model, and Marie Anne making “real world” measurements and testing the model’s predictions in a laboratory setting.