An EU-funded project has developed a blood-cell analysis device that helps doctors and scientists better understand the causes and mechanics of rare forms of anemia - potentially speeding up the development of new treatments adjusted to the needs of patients with these diseases.
For most people with anemia, symptoms of tiredness and shortness of breath can be treated with iron supplements which enable their red blood cells to better transport oxygen to their organs. People with rare anemias – which can be painful or even fatal – can require more extreme treatment such as spleen removal. For some patients with these rare types, no treatments are available because the causes and mechanics of their disease are still unknown.
The EU-funded COMMITMENT project has developed a prototype device, MeCheM, that can quickly analyze a few drops of blood from a person with a rare anemia to show how the diseased blood cells function and interact with other cells. This can assist doctors in better diagnosing and monitoring a rare anemia and help researchers to develop non-invasive, drug-based treatments.
The project has already identified molecular symptoms shared between some rare anemias, which could make future drug development more cost effective. It has also helped to test a promising treatment for sickle cell disease, a hereditary, severe anemia.
‘There is a need for this technology in hospitals where there are no special hematology centers and for academic research,’ says project coordinator Lars Kaestner of the Universität des Saarlandes in Germany.
Easy, cheap, non-invasive
Targeted analysis is at the heart of the innovative device. ‘Blood cell numbers are so high that if only 1 % of cells are affected they are difficult to spot in traditional screening,’ Kaestner explains. ‘Nevertheless, these cells still have an adverse impact on the patient. Our approach is to look at individual cells.’
MeCheM processes blood through microchannels and reservoirs to separate out anemic blood cells. An optical screening method then analyses how these cells respond to mechanical deformation and chemicals. This allows researchers and clinicians to better understand how rare anemias work, to monitor the disease and to match a drug to a possible group of patients.
‘Our method allows a very patient-specific diagnosis that is easy, cheap and non-invasive. It allows doctors to see whether a patient needs medication and to what extent. It is a step towards the goal of personalized medicine,’ Kaestner adds.
Risk support pays
Five companies and four research organizations took part in the project, working closely with the European Network for Rare and Congenital Anaemias. Together, they chose a shortlist of anemias to investigate and devised study protocols to gain an overall picture of blood-cell behavior.
Next, the partners started to design an analysis device and apply its results. Although the project initially worked towards a more complex machine, this failed in further development. Instead, COMMITMENT developed MeCheM.
Kaestner credits the EU funding for their ability to make the change. ‘The EU funds “risky” projects, so we could stay flexible in what we were doing. And although part of our technology did not work, we also had [positive] results that we did not plan.’
MeCheM has been patented and is in prototype testing, adds Kaestner. He hopes that one day doctors will be able to use its methods as part of their routine diagnosis of patients.
He adds that the device contributes to the goal of the International Rare Diseases Research Consortium to develop new kinds of diagnosis and 200 new therapies for rare diseases by 2020.
Meanwhile, the project results have been presented at scientific meetings and in scientific journals and will continue to be published in 2019. COMMITMENT technology and results are also being used to train PhD students to develop medical applications of red-blood-cell behavior, in a follow-on Marie Skłodowska-Curie training network, RELEVANCE.