New Sickle Cell Test Could Be Lifesaver in Developing World

A new low-cost, rapid blood test for sickle cell anemia could someday save the lives of thousands children in developing countries.

An estimated 300,000 children are born with the genetic blood disorder each year in Africa alone. It causes affected red cells to form into a sickle shape, clogging blood vessels. Researchers say more than 50 percent of children under age five die of complications of sickle cell disease while awaiting diagnosis and treatment.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard University researchers describe a new blood test that tells doctors within 12 minutes whether a child has the disorder. If and when it finally becomes available, after more clinical trials, the test could cost as little as 50 cents each.

The researchers tested 50 blood samples, half of which contained sickle-shaped cells, and were able to accurately identify those blood samples from whole blood from individuals without the disease.

The test takes advantage of the fact that sickle cells are heavier than healthy red blood cells.

It uses a centrifuge machine to spin the blood, separating it into layers in a protein solution. Sickle cells form visibly identifiable bands at the bottom of a thin tube while healthy blood cells do not settle the same way.

The researchers say the test may help identify children with the disease before they develop acute symptoms, which could lead to more timely and effective treatment.

Experts say a current testing method is not feasible in developing countries. It uses a complex, expensive process involving the separation of blood proteins via a procedure called gel electrophoresis. The equipment needed to run the tests costs tens of thousands of dollars.

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