Using real-time deformability cytometry, researchers at the Max-Planck-Zentrum für Physik und Medizin in Erlangen were able to show for the first time: COVID-19 significantly changes the size and stiffness of red and white blood cells—sometimes over months. These results may help to explain why some affected people continue to complain of symptoms long after an infection (long COVID).

To investigate this aspect, a team of scientists led by Markéta Kubánková, Jochen Guck, and Martin Kräter from the Max-Planck-Zentrum für Physik und Medizin, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light (MPL), the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg and the German Center for Immunotherapy measured the mechanical states of red and white blood cells. “We were able to detect clear and long-lasting changes in the cells—both during an acute infection and even afterwards,” reports Professor Guck, currently managing director of MPL. The research group has now published their results in the renowned journal Biophysical Journal.

How a COVID-19 infection changes blood cells in the long run
Treatment of blood samples to measure physical properties of leukocytes and erythrocytes. Credit: MPL/Guck Division

To analyze the blood cells, they used a self-developed method called real-time deformability cytometry (RT-DC), which has recently been recognized with the prestigious Medical Valley Award. In this method, the researchers send the blood cells through a narrow channel at high speed. In the process, the leukocytes and erythrocytes are stretched. A high-speed camera records each of them through a microscope, and custom software determines which cell types are present, and how big and deformed they are. Up to 1000 blood cells can be analyzed per second. The advantage of the method: It is fast and the cells do not have to be labeled in a laborious procedure.

The method could help as an early warning system to detect future pandemics by unknown viruses…

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