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A technique based on nuclear magnetic resonance, useful to evaluate diseases and treatments

Blood cells are considered to be excellent ex vivo models for the characterization of diseases and in the determination of the beneficial or toxic effects of possible treatments. The results of numerous research projects over recent years, through which researchers have developed biomarkers of interest in different pathologies, make up the evidence behind this assertion.

For example, a study published in Malaria Journal, evaluated the suitability of studying the deformation of blood cells as an efficacy indicator for an experimental malaria therapy. Another interesting approach is the usage of biomarkers that scientists have attained through the analysis of the proteome of red blood cells in pathologies such as anemia, thalassemia or enzymopathies, as explained in a second article published in the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Proteins and Proteomics.

A third possibility is to determine a metabolic profile of the cells of interest. In other words, conduct a unique analysis of a significant number of different metabolites for researchers to gather data of interest on a disease or the effect of an experimental treatment for a specific pathology.

Red Blood Cells
Source: Pixabay

This type of studies have generally been performed using techniques such as mass spectrometry, which offers structural information of the metabolites by destroying the sample. For example, its applications have enabled researchers to characterize healthy erythrocytes and those infected with Plasmodium falciparum, as shown in a study published in the journal PLOS One, though such approaches do face problems and limitations.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance of blood cells

Scientists at the Vall d'Hebron Research Institute  (VHIR) and the Príncipe Felipe Research Center (CIPF) have developed a new methodology that will enable the structural determination of the metabolites, with the possibility of reusing the sample for later analyses. Their idea, based on nuclear magnetic resonance (RMN), is quickly achieving conclusive results, overcoming some of the limitations of mass spectrometry.

“We have been pioneers in the use of RMN on blood cells. Up to now, it had only been used on fluids (plasma, urine and saliva)," states doctor José Raúl Herance Camacho, Principal Investigator of the CIBBIM-Nanomedicine Molecular Medical Imaging research group of the VHIR. Their approach is based on biomarkers in the different peripheral blood cell types, instead of gathering biomarkers that are circulating in the bloodstream.

According to Herance Camacho, their results open the door to “a field of enormous potential”. Specifically, their research played a role in the development of a protocol to determine the metabolic profile of the three main types of blood cells (erythrocytes, polymorphonuclear leukocytes and mononuclear leukocytes) from a sample of a patient, and compare them with the cell types of four healthy volunteers, once the cells had been exposed to treatment with gold nanoparticles.


Source: Andras Vladar, NIST (Wikimedia)

“With this testing context, we have attempted to show the systemic metabolic changes that can be detected in human blood cells following treatment with nanoparticles," state the authors in the study published in the journal PLOS One. “Along with toxicological studies or therapeutic data, this information may contribute to the evaluation of new nanomedicines in preclinical phases from a translational point of view, setting a new precedent in the field," add the VHIR and CIPF researchers in their article.

​Their study showed that NMR characterization of blood cells can offer data of interest on the impact of nanoparticles, arising from their antioxidant effect and the possible alterations in metabolomic routes. This novel methodology, together with biochemical and analytical techniques, may boost the research and development of nanomedicines for a number of different pathologies, especially in preclinical trials. Nevertheless, due to the small sample size, their results can only be considered preliminary for now. Future research must corroborate the conclusions presented in this study.