Detecting Drop in White Blood Cells

NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering helped fund researchers to develop a portable non-invasive monitor. This device can determine in just one minute and without drawing blood, whether chemotherapy patients have a reduced number of white blood cells that could lead to infections.

When a MIT research team visited a chemotherapy unit as part of a special MIT program, they learned that chemotherapy causes a reduction in infection-fighting white blood cells and about 17 percent of the time, this can result in infectious disease.

The MIT research team led by Carlos Castro-Gonzalez, PhD, at MIT’s Research Laboratory for Electronics, determined that a device to monitor white blood cell levels at home following chemotherapy could allow these patients to easily detect dangerous drops in white cells.

This would enable immediate treatment with agents to increase white cell production and prophylactic antibiotics. The team estimates that this approach could prevent about half of the 110,000 infections that occur in chemotherapy patients in the U.S according to their research as described in the journal “Scientific Reports”

The tabletop prototype device is designed to be used easily at home when the device takes a video of blood moving through extremely small capillaries at the base of the fingernail just below the skin. The blue light used in the device makes the red cells appear dark and the white cells appear transparent.

Since the white cells completely fill the width of the artery as they flow through it, they appear as a white gap in the dark flow of red blood cells moving through the capillary. The device was tested with eleven patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

One minute of video was recorded while the patient’s finger was placed in the portable tabletop devices. At this point, the number of white cells that passed through a single capillary were counted to determine whether chemotherapy treatment had reduced the white cell levels to below the threshold where the risk of infection increases.

The team is moving quickly to commercialize the technology by applying for a patent and has launched a company called Leuko which is working on adaptions for the technology. One goal is to develop more precise white blood cell measurements that could possibly be used to monitor the health of bone marrow recipients.

The research was supported through a grant from NIBIB, the Comunidad de Madrid Fundacion, Wallace H. Coulter Foundation at BU, Deshpande Center for Technology Innovation, MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund, Fundacion Ramon Areces, and the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

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