Today’s Faces of Sickle Cell Disease: Umut Gurkan, Ph.D.

September 16, 2021

Sickle cell researcher, technology developer, and professor at Case Western Reserve University

His story: Umut Gurkan, Ph.D., a biomedical engineering professor at Case Western Reserve University, wants to better understand the role hemoglobin and red blood cells play in health and disease. His research, which is primarily funded by the NHLBI, has led to new biomedical technologies for the improved diagnosis and monitoring of sickle cell disease and other blood disorders. Among the inventions by him and his team: A portable, low-cost, and point-of-care diagnostic device that can quickly detect the presence of sickle cell disease in newborns using a droplet of blood. The device, which combines lab-on-a-chip technology with artificial intelligence, can be used in populations in remote, underserved areas worldwide, and has the potential to save lives.

Aha moment: “I realized that as a biomedical engineer, I could make a difference in sickle cell disease. That’s because we know what causes the disease and we know how to diagnose it. All these pieces were in place when I started my research program at Case Western.”

Biggest challenge: “We wanted to develop a device to do newborn screening anywhere in the world,” Gurkan said. And while he knew it was a tall order, he also knew lives were at stake. Worldwide, an estimated 500 children die each day because the countries where they live are too poor to afford expensive, highly sensitive medical instruments used to detect blood disorders. So Gurkan’s team forged ahead. And now, easy screening anywhere in the world is no longer a dream. “It’s now a possibility with this new technology.”

His motivator: “When I meet someone who has a personal connection with the disease, it makes me want to push further and work harder. That’s a big motivation for me and others in my lab.”

His dream: “I wish that everyone living with sickle cell disease had access to the same quality of care, diagnostic technologies, and curative treatments anywhere in the world,” he said. “We’re working on making these diagnostic technologies more affordable and more available to everyone. We don’t want dust, temperature, dirt, cost, or complexity to be a barrier for using technology to fight disease.”

Notable nugget: Gurkan was born and raised in Turkey. In his native language, his first name, “Umut,” means hope. Appropriately, his research offers hope for people with sickle cell throughout the world.

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