Newly developed test can identify sickle cell disease in minutes

Sept. 3, 2014

Harvard University researcher Ashok A. Kumar, PhD, and colleagues have developed a new test for sickle cell disease that provides results in just 12 minutes and costs as little as 50 cents—far faster and cheaper than other tests. The test is described in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The test designed by Kumar works by connecting two ideas scientists have understood for decades. The first is the notion that blood cells affected by the disease are denser than normal cells, and the second is that many polymers, when mixed in water, automatically separate into layers ordered by density.

When Kumar and colleagues ran tests with infected blood, healthy red blood cells settled in the tubes at specific levels; the dense cells from blood infected with sickle cell settled in a band significantly lower. The band of red cells could clearly be seen by eye.

The design the team eventually settled on is barely larger than a toothpick. In the field, Kumar says, running the test is as simple as uncapping the tube, pricking a patient's finger and allowing the blood to wick into the tube.

While further study is needed to determine how accurate and effective the test may be, Kumar says stopping even a few sickle-cell-related deaths would represent a victory.

“There were studies recently that showed in sub-Saharan Africa, between 50 and 90 percent of the children born with sickle cell disease die before the age of 5,” he adds. “Whereas in the U.S. people don't die from this disease as children; they can still live a full life. So my hope is that if this test is effective, it can make some small dent in those numbers.” Read the study abstract.

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