Platelet Disease: Symptoms and Treatment

Blood platelets are disc-shaped cells around 3 microns across, about one-fiftieth the diameter of a hair. They are the major component of clots and play an important role in repairing and regenerating connective tissue. Too many and too few platelets can both cause problems. Too many can lead to thrombosis, when blood clots inside blood vessels. Too few can result in bleeding uncontrollably when scabs fail to form.

This is what happens in idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, or ITP, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks platelets. It frequently happens to children after a viral infection, but it usually clears up. In adults, however—mostly women—it is usually a chronic condition, though one that can be managed.

Symptoms of ITP, as with other conditions associated with a low platelet count, are excessive bleeding. Menstruation will be unusually heavy. The patient will bleed easily and unusually heavily, and will bruise easily, often without even being aware of an injury. People with the condition are often prone to nosebleeds. Bleeding under the skin can cause pinpoint spots called petechiae.

Mild cases of ITP might not need treatment at all. In children it often goes away after six months or less. For adults who do need treatments, there are medications that can help with the effects, and patients will be advised to stop using medications such as ibuprofen that can thin the blood. In extreme cases, the spleen can be removed surgically.

Now a new option is synthetic blood. Developed at the University of California at Santa Barbara, plastic polymer is used to create the basic shape of a platelet. and proteins are attached to that frame. The polymer is then dissolved, leaving a lab-grown but realistic—and healthy—platelets that the body can use.

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