A protein found on red blood cells in sickle-cell disease binds these cells to blood vessel walls, disrupting circulation, a new study suggests. The protein, which makes a cell sticky, may serve as a prime target for drugs to ease the condition.
People with sickle-cell disease make elongated versions of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that totes oxygen. The abnormal hemoglobin can become stiff, bending many of the cells into a sickle shape. Like twigs collecting in a downspout, these misshapen blood cells are apt to clog a vessel. The result can be intense pain and damage to internal organs.
For decades, scientists assumed that the cells' shape was the primary cause of vessel blockage in sickle-cell patients. But since 1980, researchers have been turning up evidence that specific molecules on the deformed cells make them stickier than healthy cells.