Platelets are small cells in the blood that primarily help stop bleeding after an injury by sticking together with other blood cells to form a clot that seals the broken blood vessel. Blood clots, however, can sometimes cause harm. For example, if a clot blocks the blood flow to the heart or the brain, it can result in a heart attack or stroke, respectively. Blood clots have also been linked to harmful inflammation and the spread of cancer, and there are now preliminary reports of remarkably high rates of clotting in COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.
A variety of chemicals can cause platelets to stick together. It has long been assumed that it would be impossible to tell apart the clots formed by different chemicals (which are also known as agonists). This is largely because these aggregates all look very similar under a microscope, making it incredibly time consuming for someone to look at enough microscopy images to reliably identify the subtle differences between them. However, finding a way to distinguish the different types of platelet aggregates could lead to better ways to diagnose or treat blood vessel-clogging diseases.
To make this possible, Zhou, Yasumoto et al. have developed a method called the “intelligent platelet aggregate classifier” or iPAC for short. First, numerous clot-causing chemicals were added to separate samples of platelets taken from healthy human blood. The method then involved using high-throughput techniques to take thousands of images of these samples. Then, a sophisticated computer algorithm called a deep learning model analyzed the resulting image dataset and “learned” to distinguish the chemical causes of the platelet aggregates based on subtle differences in their shapes. Finally, Zhou, Yasumoto et al. verified iPAC method’s accuracy using a new set of human platelet samples.
The iPAC method may help scientists studying the steps that lead to clot formation. It may also help clinicians distinguish which clot-causing chemical led to a patient’s heart attack or stroke. This could help them choose whether aspirin or another anti-platelet drug would be the best treatment. But first more studies are needed to confirm whether this method is a useful tool for drug selection or diagnosis.