The Royal Academy of Engineering is helping to send Imperial College PhD student, Robin Kumar, to Austria later this month to present his research into sickle cell anaemia.

It is estimated that there are over 6,000 adults and children with sickle cell disease in Britain at present, with most of those affected being of African and Caribbean descent.

The disorder affects the red blood cells which contain the oxygen-carrying protein, haemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. People with sickle cell disorder need regular medical attention, but with the right care can lead relatively normal lives. Continued research is imperative!

The blood cell ‘factory’ where the red blood cells are made is the bone marrow; the spongy tissue in the cavities of bones. Healthy bone marrow releases blood cells into the blood stream when they are mature and when required.

While bone marrow transplants have been carried out on sickle cell patients, little attention has been paid to developing a means of measuring the oxygen content of new red blood cells within human bone marrow. Robin, a PhD student in the department of chemical engineering under the supervision of Dr A Mantalaris, has developed a model which could change this, and he will present his novel and groundbreaking research in Austria this month, traveling to the International Conference in Biomedical Engineering in Innsbruck with help from The Royal Academy of Engineering’s International Travel Grant Scheme.

Ian Bowbrick, Manager, Postgraduate & Professional Development at the Royal Academy of Engineering says,

“The Royal Academy of Engineering exists to support excellence in engineering and to offer opportunities to our engineers. The International Travel Grant scheme is one way of doing this. This superb work in a fascinating, novel and worthwhile area of technology demonstrates not just great innovation but also how engineering application can affect lives.”

Notes for editors

  1. Sickle cell disorder affects the red blood cells which contain the oxygen carrying protein, haemoglobin, that carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. Normal, ‘doughnut-shaped’ red blood cells can bend and flex easily. In contrast, people with sickle cell anaemia have sickle haemoglobin which alters their shape, making the cells sickle-shaped and rigid. The red blood cells therefore can’t squeeze through small blood vessels as easily when giving up their oxygen to the tissues, which can lead to these vessels getting blocked and oxygen failing to reach where it is needed. Severe pain and organ damage can ultimately result. A further problem is that red blood cells containing sickle haemoglobin do not live as long as the normal 120 days, and this results in a chronic state of anaemia.
  2. Sickle cell is an inherited disorder. Everyone has two copies of the gene for haemoglobin; one from their mother and one from their father. If one of these genes carries the instructions to make sickle haemoglobin (HbS) and the other carries the instructions to make normal haemoglobin (HbA) then the person has sickle cell trait and is a carrier of the sickle haemoglobin gene. This means that this person has enough normal haemoglobin in their red blood cells to keep the cells flexible and they don’t have the symptoms of the sickle cell disorders. They do however have to be careful when doing things where there is less oxygen than normal such as scuba diving, activities at high altitude and under general anaesthetics. If both copies of the haemoglobin gene are present, this results in the production of sickle haemoglobin which will be the only type of haemoglobin they can make and sickled cells then occur. These people have sickle cell anaemia and can suffer from anaemia and severe pain. These severe attacks are known as crises. Over time sickle cell sufferers can experience damage to organs such as liver, kidney, lungs, heart and spleen. Death can be a result.
  3. In Britain, sickle cell disease is most common in people of African and Caribbean descent (at least 1 in 10-40 have sickle cell trait and 1 in 60-200 have SCD).
  4. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
  5. The International Travel Grant Scheme is intended to help engineering researchers in the United Kingdom make study visits overseas. This enables them to remain at the forefront of new developments and to be aware of corresponding activity overseas. The scheme is intended to benefit the individual applicants with their current work, and ultimately engineering in the United Kingdom as a whole. It is also a means of maintaining the prestige of the nation’s engineering overseas. The scheme is open to postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers, lecturers involved in research, and chartered engineers in UK higher education institutions and in UK industry. To be eligible for funding applicants must be United Kingdom nationals or United Kingdom permanent residents. There are no age restrictions. Awards may be sought for attendance at conferences (particularly where the applicant is presenting a paper) and for visits to research institutions and/or industrial sites. It is important, particularly for visits to distant countries, to combine a series of activities to obtain maximum benefit for the costs expended.
  6. Robin graduated in 2001 with a MEng (Biochemical Engineering) from University College London, and since has been pursuing a PhD in the Chemical Engineering Department at Imperial College London. In 2004 he was awarded the Junior Moulton Medal from the Institute of Chemical Engineers for the best publication. Robin’s work is being carried out in collaborations with Dr F Stepanek (Department of Chemical Engineering) and Dr N Panoskaltsis (Department of Medicine) with Dr A. Mantalaris (Department of Chemical Engineering) his PhD supervisor.
  7. Oxygen Transport Simulation in the Human Bone Marrow Microcirculation - Human bone marrow (BM), as the site for haematopoiesis and a tissue of complex architectural organisation, relies on its micro-environmental niches for the regulation of stem cell renewal, proliferation, and differentiation. Within these microenvironments, control for these processes can be, partly, attributed to oxygen partial pressure (oxygen tension), and hence it is important to know the spatial oxygen tension variations in the BM extra-vascular space. However, due to BM’s inaccessibility, especially in humans, experimental measurements are not possible. Modelling offers the most credible alternative, although to date, detailed analyses of transport properties in the marrow have been deficient and there is a lack of reliable and predictive oxygen tension models despite BM’s important function and their potential wide range of applicability. In our study, we have proposed a physiological relevant model, which is based on the Kroghian model (cylindrical central vessel supplying a concentric tissue), for the detailed analysis of oxygen mass transfer in human BM. Further models that account for the BM heterogeneity under normal and pathological (Sickle Cell Disease) conditions have also been developed. In addition, work has been carried out to capture the realistic nature of the blood flow within the BM and its subsequent oxygen transport process. As a result the fluid dynamical contributions within this work are significant; where we not only describe a multi-fluid model to represent the blood flow within the BM intra-vascular space, but we also introduce population balance to account for the aggregation and the breakage of the blood cells while flowing through these complex structures. These are subsequently combined with oxygen transport for a fuller description of oxygen transport under normal BM conditions. The development of such physiologically relevant models for oxygen tension distribution in the human BM, could offers numerous clinical/medical applications including understanding of the effects of oxygen tension on drug efficacy (chemotherapy) to the haematopoietic compartment, understanding of the physiological mechanism of oxygen transport in the modulation of normal and leukaemic bone marrow, and assisting in the reconstitution of ex vivo bone marrow engineering constructs.

For more information please contact

Dr Claire McLoughlin at The Royal Academy of Engineering