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What is a sickle cell?

For tissues in the body to work as well as they should, they require a healthy supply of oxygen. In normal red blood cells, oxygen is transported from the lungs to tissues all around the body by a molecule called haemoglobin.

Red blood cells which contain normal haemoglobin are disc-shaped. This is the perfect shape for moving throughout the blood vessels of the body unobstructed and unimpeded. However, the presence of sickle haemoglobin can cause major issues with the body’s ability to move oxygen around the body.

Sickle haemoglobin, also known as haemoglobin S, is characterised by the formation of abnormal stiff rods within the red blood cell. These stiff rods are responsible for the shape of what is termed a ‘sickle cell’.

The problem with sickle-shaped cells is that they are more inflexible than their disc-shaped counterparts, causing blockages and resulting in difficulties with the flow of blood through vessels through blockages. These blockages can significantly reduce oxygen levels in affected tissues. It is this oxygen deprivation in tissues which causes the severe pain and organ damage often associated with sickle cell disease (SCD).

Sickle cells are unlike their normal red blood cell counterparts in lifespan as well as shape, expiring after 10 to 20 days, rather than the 120 days of normal red blood cells. With the body having to work harder to replenish red blood cells for an SCD sufferer, anaemia is a common symptom.