The viscoelastic properties of red blood cells (RBC) facilitate flexible shape change in response to extrinsic forces. Their viscoelasticity is intrinsically linked to physical properties of the cytosol, cytoskeleton, and membrane—all of which are highly sensitive to supraphysiological shear exposure. Given the need to minimise blood trauma within artificial organs, we observed RBC in supraphysiological shear through direct visualisation to gain understanding of processes leading to blood damage. Using a custom-built counter-rotating shear generator fit to a microscope, healthy red blood cells (RBC) were directly visualised during exposure to different levels of shear (10–60 Pa). To investigate RBC morphology in shear flow, we developed an image analysis method to quantify (a)symmetry of deforming ellipsoidal cells—following RBC identification and centroid detection, cell radius was determined for each angle around the circumference of the cell, and the resultant bimodal distribution (and thus RBC) was symmetrically compared. While traditional indices of RBC deformability (elongation index) remained unaltered in all shear conditions, following ~100 s of exposure to 60 Pa, the frequency of asymmetrical ellipses and RBC fragments/extracellular vesicles significantly increased. These findings indicate RBC structure is sensitive to shear history, where asymmetrical morphology may indicate sublethal blood damage in real-time shear flow.
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