To treat severe blood disorders, doctors often use large machines to extract whole blood from patients, then separating the white blood cells. This procedure – called leukapheresis – can reduce a dangerously elevated white blood cell count or collect them for therapeutic purposes. For adults and older children, it can be very effective. For babies, not so much. “It’s technically challenging and clinically risky,” said UH biomedical engineering professor Sergey Shevkoplyas, who is developing pediatric-sized technology to accommodate younger patients. Currently, leukapheresis uses centrifugation-based machines that require a substantial amount of blood be taken out, putting small children at significantly higher risk of low blood pressure, catheter- related thrombosis, infections, severe anemia and even death.
Shevkoplyas’ new device, which he’s creating with collaborators from Baylor College of Medicine, looks like a small plastic dish with many tiny channels cut into it. The channels are designed to separate blood cells by size, using a new cell separation approach called controlled incremental filtration (CIF). He and his colleagues are planning to adapt CIF to enable separation of white blood cells from flowing blood with high efficiency, minimal loss of red blood cells and platelets, and at flow rates on par with conventional leukapheresis.
“Since all the existing machines were built for adults, we have to do something very special for babies,” said Shevkoplyas. “That’s what is inspiring us.”