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08 August 2017

Scientists have developed a new computer model to increase understanding of sickle cell disease, showing the changes that occur inside affected red blood cells.

The team, led by PhD student Lu Lu, of Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, created the model to aid in the assessment of new drug strategies to treat the condition.

They explain in Biophysical Journal that in sickle red blood cells, mutated haemoglobin polymerises when deprived of oxygen. This creates long polymer fibres that force the membranes of cells out of shape, and put them at risk of blocking small capillaries, triggering a sickle cell crisis.

The new model uses biomechanical information about how sickle haemoglobin molecules behave and join with each other to assemble a polymer fibre. This is the first time that an entire polymer fibre has been modelled at the cellular scale, thanks to increased computing power.

It also involves a mesoscopic adaptive resolution scheme, that calculates the dynamics of each haemoglobin molecule at the end of polymer fibres - the location where new molecules join the fibre -avoiding the detailed processing of unnecessary fine details.

Ms Lu said: 'The goal of our work is to model both how these sickle haemoglobin fibres form as well as the mechanical properties of those fibres. There had been separate models for each of these things individually developed by us, but this brings those together into one comprehensive model.'

Co-author, Professor George Karniadakis said: 'Even the world's fastest supercomputers wouldn't be able to handle it. There's just too much happening and no way to capture it all computationally. That's what we were able to overcome with this work.'

Lu, L. et al. Mesoscopic Adaptive Resolution Scheme toward Understanding of Interactions between Sickle Cell Fibers. Biophysical Journal 11 July 2017 doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2017.05.050

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bpj.2017.05.050

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