Red Blood Cells and Mercury
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal and a well-recognized environmental toxin. When absorbed into the bloodstream at elevated levels, mercury is also extremely harmful to people, causing a range of problems including cognitive impairments, skin rashes, and kidney problems .
In this illustration, it’s possible to see in red blood cells the effects of mercury chloride, a toxic chemical compound now sometimes used as a laboratory reagent. Normally, healthy red blood cells have a distinct, doughnut-like shape that helps them squeeze through the tiniest of blood vessels. But these cells are terribly disfigured, with unusual spiky projections, after 24 hours of exposure to low levels of a mercury chloride in solution.
The lab of NIH-grantee Umut Gurkan at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, has extensively characterized red blood cells following their exposure to mercury. In this image, Gurkan and colleagues first captured those changes in black and white using scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Courtney Fleming, a biomedical art student at the Cleveland Institute of Art and an intern in the Gurkan lab, then adapted those SEM micrographs into this colorful scientific illustration showing how the misshapen red cells might look coursing through a person’s veins and arteries. For their creative efforts, the team was selected as one of the winners in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2017 BioArt competition.
Gurkan’s interest in red blood cells began with studies in patients with sickle cell disease. His studies later expanded to include many conditions in which the form and function of red blood cells may be affected. They’ve seen that mercury-exposed red blood cells don’t just look different. They also become stickier. They have evidence that the stickiness makes them more likely to adhere to blood vessels, which may impede blood flow especially in the tiniest capillaries. That also happens in sickle cell disease.
Most tests used to examine blood cells today only capture changes in blood cell counts. But Gurkan’s team is now developing a microfluidic device designed to characterize other important properties of red blood cells and their interactions with blood vessels . The hope is that such a tool will ultimately improve our understanding of the role that changes in red cells might play—not just in the case of mercury exposure, but in many other health conditions, including sickle cell disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurological disorders.
 Mercury Factsheet, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 7, 2017.
 Sickle cell disease biochip: a functional red blood cell adhesion assay for monitoring sickle cell disease. Alapan Y, Kim C, Adhikari A, Gray KE, Gurkan-Cavusoglu E, Little JA, Gurkan UA. Transl Res. 2016 Jul;173:74-91.e8.
Mercury (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences/NIH)
Umut Gurkan (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH)
BioArt (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)
NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
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Tags: cardiovascular disease, environmental factors, environmental health, FASEB Bioart 2017, kidney disease, mercury, mercury chloride, metal, microfluidics, red blood cells, scanning electron microscopy, sickle cell disease