I had to admit that I didn’t. I’ve always thought of sickle cell—a painful and debilitating disease caused by an inherited mutation that makes red blood cells stiffen into a characteristic sickled shape—as a chronic disease to be managed, not one that could be cured.
I’m not alone in that belief. Lehmann often asks this question when she give talks for medical students, residents and other physicians. Their reaction is puzzlement, then a shaking of heads.
If there’s one thing most patients with sickle cell disease will agree on, it’s that sickle cell hurts. A lot.
The characteristic rigid, sticky, C-shaped red blood cells of this inherited disease tend to get stuck in the small blood vessels of the body. If so many get stuck in a vessel that they cut off blood flow, the body sends out a warning signal in the form of searing pain that doctors call a pain or vaso-occlusive crisis (at least, that’s the historic view; more on that in a minute). The pain can happen anywhere in the body, but most often occurs in the bones of the arms, legs, chest and spine.
Preventing flare-ups—and stopping them when they happen—is a major part of the care plan for any patient with sickle cell. Right now doctors try to avoid pain crises largely by diluting a patient’s blood with fluids or transfusions, thereby keeping the numbers of sickled cells relatively low.
What these treatments don’t do is tackle the pain directly. Doctors can use pain medications, but over time, patients can become tolerant to painkillers, requiring ever-larger doses. What’s needed is something that can stop the complex cascade of events that ignite a pain crisis. …
Sickle-cell anemia was the first disease to have its genetic cause identified, in the 1950s — a milestone in human genetics. Yet today, there’s just one FDA-approved drug, hydroxyurea, developed 20 years ago at Children’s. Though it’s a mainstay of treatment, reducing the frequency of severe pain, acute chest syndrome and the need for blood transfusions, it can cause toxicity, and about half of patients aren’t helped by it. Only a hematopoietic stem-cell transplant is curative.
Research on sickle-cell disease has generally been underfunded compared with other genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis that aren’t as common. But Children’s has been exploring new treatment approaches for decades, and two exciting possibilities have emerged. …