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Wellcome Image of the Month: Sickle Cell Disease

19 Jun, 2013

Sickle-cell anaemia

Wednesday 19 June 2013 marks the 5th annual World Sickle Cell Day, created to raise global awareness of sickle cell disease and its serious impact on health.

Our image of the month shows two red blood cells taken from a patient with sickle cell disease. After taking blood from the patient, the cells were collected onto a polycarbonate filter (the pores in the filter are visible in the background of the image) and then further processed so that they could be imaged by scanning electron microscopy. The two red blood cells, one normal and one diseased, were then digitally coloured to highlight the striking differences in their physical structure. The orange cell in the foreground of the image has been affected by sickle cell anaemia which gives the cell its abnormal characteristic ‘sickle’ or ‘crescent’ shape. This change in shape makes the cell less flexible which can cause it to block blood vessels in the body. Sickle cells often die prematurely which means that the body can’t make enough red blood cells to support its needs (anaemia).

Sickle cell anaemia is a genetic disease in which an individual inherits two copies of a faulty haemoglobin gene. Haemoglobin is an iron-rich protein in red blood cells responsible for binding to and carrying oxygen around the body. When oxygen is released into respiring tissues, haemoglobin picks up waste carbon dioxide and delivers it to the lungs to be expelled. People who only inherit one faulty copy of the haemoglobin gene do not develop sickle cell disease but instead become carriers. This is called ‘sickle cell trait’ and provides a protective advantage against malaria infection. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 5 per cent of the global population carry mutated genes for haemoglobin disorders, specifically sickle cell disease and thalassaemia.

This scanning electron micrograph was acquired by Jackie Lewen whilst at the EM Unit at the UCL Medical School, Royal Free Campus. It was a Wellcome Image Award winner in 2009.

Image credit: EM Unit, UCL Medical School, Royal Free Campus, Wellcome Images (Sickle cell anaemia)



2 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 Jun, 2013 3:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… Here’s a graphic image of what goes wrong when a person has sickle cell anaemia. It’s caused by a recessive allele, meaning that if you’re heterozygous you’re a carrier. You don’t get the disease but if you have kids with another carriers, the kids might get sickle cell. Here’s the crunch line: sickle cell is protective against malaria. So black people are more likely to carry sickle cell than other people. Black people, who live in the Tropics or whose families came from the Tropics. Racism may be part of the reason that sickle cell doesn’t get so much research attention as other diseases. Here’s some peer reviewed argument that sickle cell should be classed as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD). NTDs are the topic of the London Declaration which I’ve blogged about here, under my ‘tropical disease’ tag.

    • 9 Jan, 2016 6:44 am

      Thank you sooooo MUCH for this comment. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for most people. I have SCD SS, am 39 and I wasn’t even diagnosed with it until I was 17!!! I have been having the pain episodes known as a ‘crisis’ since the age of 3. My pediatrician told my mom that I had “growing pains”. He never even thought about testing me for Sickle Cell. My life story is featured in a book “Sickle Cell Disease… 100 Years Later” It was published in 2010. I also believe wholeheartedly that racism plays the biggest role in the mis-education of Sickle Cell. I just met a woman who is of Italian descent, all 3 of her children have Sickle Cell, well they have Thalassemia Zero. It’s like a “sister” to SCD. Once more people are informed that it’s not JUST a “Black Disease”, America might wake up and do more about it. It’s extremely hard, living this #SickleCellLyfe…
      I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your speaking up

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