When you give blood, your red blood cells are separated and banked until they’re needed for a transfusion. During storage, those cells undergo biochemical and structural changes, but for the most part appear like new. Now, researchers have used a special microscopy technique to look closely at how storage affects the performance of red blood cells. Taking time-lapse images of the cells to chart nanoscale fluctuations in the cell membrane (pictured) over time, the researchers found that red blood cell membranes get stiffer during storage, which impairs their ability to carry oxygen around the body. Stiffened cells look fine and retain normal levels of oxygen-carrying haemoglobin, but they’re not flexible enough to squeeze through narrow capillaries – in the brain, for example – which could cause serious problems in transfusion recipients. Potentially, doctors could use this imaging method to check red blood cells before they’re given to patients.
Written by Daniel Cossins
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