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Chemical Biology

A supplement providing a snapshot of the latest developments in chemical biology

Blood cell role in diabetes complications

15 June 2006

Red blood cells are much more than just transporters of oxygen, according to US chemists.

Dana Spence and colleagues from Wayne State University have discovered that red blood cells (RBCs) play an important role in the onset of complications associated with diabetes. People with diabetes can develop conditions such as heart disease and strokes. There is a need to find out what causes these complications, said Spence.

Proposed mechanism for the maintenance of deformability in RBCs through antioxidant activities

The RBCs of diabetics are known to have a weakened defence mechanism against oxidising molecules. In addition, RBCs can be deformed as they flow through blood vessels and RBCs in diabetics are known to be less deformable than those in healthy individuals.

In the light of this, Spence's group investigated how oxidants affect the release of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from RBCs. RBCs release ATP when they are deformed. ATP triggers nitric oxide production which causes blood vessel widening and inhibits platelet aggregation. When RBCs stiffen, nitric oxide production is disrupted and this can cause vascular problems.

The team used an oxidant to stiffen RBCs and measured the amount of ATP they released as they travelled through channels resembling blood vessels, in a microchip device. The group found that ATP levels dropped initially but returned to normal as the RBCs recovered from the oxidant attack.

"The aim now is to locate RBC deformation and develop treatments to return deformed cells back to normal"
  One of the main ways cells recover from oxidant attack is by producing reducing molecules. Spence showed that when an enzyme key to this process was inhibited, the ATP levels dropped as before but did not recover. This enzyme has a lower activity in diabetics than in non-diabetics, said Spence.

Spence also found that the amount of ATP released from the RBCs of people with diabetes was half that of non-diabetic people. Spence suggested that how well an RBC can fight off oxidant attack is key to its ability to release ATP.

The aim now is to locate RBC deformation and develop treatments to return deformed cells back to normal, said Spence.

Sarah M Corcoran 


J Carroll, M Raththagala, W Subasinghe, S Baguzis, T D'amico Oblak, P Root and D Spence, Mol. BioSyst., 2006, 2, 305 
DOI: 10.1039/b604362n