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Sickle cell disease, a genetic disorder affecting a sizeable global demographic, manifests in sickle red blood cells (sRBCs) with altered shape and biomechanics. sRBCs show heightened adhesive interactions with inflamed endothelium, triggering painful vascular occlusion events. Numerous studies employ microfluidic-assay-based monitoring tools to quantify characteristics of adhered sRBCs from high resolution channel images. The current image analysis workflow relies on detailed morphological characterization and cell counting by a specially trained worker. This is time and labor intensive, and prone to user bias artifacts. Here we establish a morphology based classification scheme to identify two naturally arising sRBC subpopulations—deformable and non-deformable sRBCs—utilizing novel visual markers that link to underlying cell biomechanical properties and hold promise for clinically relevant insights. We then set up a standardized, reproducible, and fully automated image analysis workflow designed to carry out this classification. This relies on a two part deep neural network architecture that works in tandem for segmentation of channel images and classification of adhered cells into subtypes. Network training utilized an extensive data set of images generated by the SCD BioChip, a microfluidic assay which injects clinical whole blood samples into protein-functionalized microchannels, mimicking physiological conditions in the microvasculature. Here we carried out the assay with the sub-endothelial protein laminin. The machine learning approach segmented the resulting channel images with 99.1±0.3% mean IoU on the validation set across 5 k-folds, classified detected sRBCs with 96.0±0.3% mean accuracy on the validation set across 5 k-folds, and matched trained personnel in overall characterization of whole channel images with R2 = 0.992, 0.987 and 0.834 for total, deformable and non-deformable sRBC counts respectively. Average analysis time per channel image was also improved by two orders of magnitude (∼ 2 minutes vs ∼ 2-3 hours) over manual characterization. Finally, the network results show an order of magnitude less variance in counts on repeat trials than humans. This kind of standardization is a prerequisite for the viability of any diagnostic technology, making our system suitable for affordable and high throughput disease monitoring.

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PLOS Computational Biology






CAREER Award 1651560; CAREER Award 1552782; R01HL133574; OT2HL152643; UL1TR002548


National Science Foundation (NSF); Case-Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Cure Sickle Cell Inititative; Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative of Cleveland; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health (NIH); and NIH Roadmap for Medical Research

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Data and code associated with the manuscript can be found at:



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