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How Mathematics is Fueling Sickle Cell Research — and Potential New Treatments — Through Computer Models

August 1, 2017 by Andrea

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We all know how sickle cell works. When red blood cells (RBCs) are introduced into low oxygen conditions, those cells become misshapen -- the lack of oxygen causes the cells to attach to each other and form polymer fibers -- and clump together. Travel through the bloodstream can be difficult for these distorted cells, and therefore, they can become stuck in capillaries, causing quite the RBC traffic backup -- which can lead to painful episodes for the Warrior.

But while we know what happens, do we really know exactly how it all goes down? That's the aim of a team of mathematicians at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. "The goal of our work is to model both how these sickle hemoglobin fibers form as well as the mechanical properties of those fibers," lead study author and Brown Ph.D student LuLu told Science Daily.

To create computer models that accurately mimic how red blood cells arrange themselves into polymer fibers, ultimately deforming their shape, the researchers used mesoscopic adaptive resolution (MARS), Science Daily reports. This just means that after a certain amount of a part of a model has been completed, that section is automatically displayed at a low resolution, so as not to be too taxing on the computer system.

So far, the Brown University team has been able to illustrate that the sickled shape isn't the only irregular formation that SCD can cause. "We are able to produce a polymerization profile for each of the cell types associated with the disease," the study's lead author George Karniadakis told Science Daily. "Now the goal is to use these models to look for ways of preventing the disease onset."

For more information on this study and the computer models themselves, read the full article here.


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