Keeping in shape: what happens to red blood cells in storage?

Understanding why red blood cells get out of shape during storage could help improve the effectiveness and safety of blood transfusions.

So, Marie-Anne Balanant and Sarah Barns are combining biological and engineering expertise, to create a model of how different parts of ageing red blood cell membranes react when a force is applied.

They hope to propose strategies to improve blood storage practices and create better transfusion outcomes for patients. 

For storage, blood is separated into red cells, platelets, and plasma, which all have differing shelf-lives. Red blood cells can typically be stored for six weeks (though the Blood Service is conducting clinical trials on a deep-freeze process that extends storage for blood components to 10 years).

During storage, the shape of the cells changes.

“They develop little spikes on the membrane, and in the final stages, they’re so stiff they can’t flow through the circulation,” Marie-Anne says.

This shape change also happens naturally in the body, but there are processes to clear these damaged cells out.

“In blood bags, there’s no mechanism to clear them out—so they are quickly removed from circulation after transfusion, meaning the transfusion won’t be as effective,” Sarah says.

Both Sarah and Marie-Anne are PhD students with the Red Cross Blood Service and the Queensland University of Technology.

Australian governments fund the Blood Service to provide blood, blood products and services to the Australian community.

Marie-Anne Balanant and Sarah Barns are combining biological and engineering expertise. Credit: QUT

For more information:

Australian Red Cross Blood Service
Alison Gould
+61 2 9234 2390