Gene therapy and blood stem cells cure sickle cell disease patients

Sickle-shaped blood cells. The cells become lodged in blood vessels, causing strokes or excruciating pain as blood stops flowing. Photo courtesy of Omikron/Science Source

Blood is the lifeline of the body. The continuous, unimpeded circulation of blood maintains oxygen flow throughout the body and enables us to carry out our everyday activities. Unfortunately, there are individuals whose own bodies are in a constant battle that prevents this from occurring seamlessly. They have something known as sickle cell disease (SCD), an inherited condition caused by a mutation in a single gene. Rather than producing normal, circular red blood cells, their bodies produce sickle shaped cells (hence the name) that can become lodged in blood vessels, preventing blood flow. The lack of blood flow can cause agonizing pain, known as crises, as well as strokes. Chronic crises can cause organ damage, which can eventually lead to organ failure. Additionally, since the misshapen cells don’t survive long in the body, people with SCD have a greater risk of being severely anemic and are more prone to infections. Monthly blood transfusions are often needed to help temporarily alleviate symptoms. Due to the debilitating nature of SCD, important aspects of everyday life such as employment and health insurance can be extremely challenging to find and maintain.

An estimated 100,000 people in the United States are living with SCD. Around the world, about 300,000 infants are born with the condition each year, a statistic that will increase to 400,000 by 2050 according to one study. Many people with SCD do not live past the age of 50. It is most prevalent in individuals with sub-Saharan African descent followed by people of Hispanic descent. Experts have stated that advances in treatment have been limited in part because SCD is concentrated in poorer minority communities.

Despite these grim statistics and prognosis, there is hope.

The New York Times and Boston Herald recently released featured articles that tell the personal stories of patients enrolled in a clinical trial conducted by bluebird bio. The trial uses gene therapy in combination with hematopoietic (blood) stem cells (HSCs) to give rise to normal red blood cells in SCD patients.

Here are the stories of these patients. To read the full New York Times article, click here. For the Boston Herald article, click here.

Brothers, Emmanuel “Manny” 21 and Aiden Johnson 7 at their home in Brockton, Massachusetts. Both brothers were born with sickle cell disease. Photo courtesy of Matt Stone for MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Emmanuel “Manny” Johnson was the very first patient in the SCD trial. He was motivated to participate in the trial not just for himself but for his younger brother Aiden Johnson, who was also born with SCD. Manny has a tattoo with Aiden’s name written inside a red sickle cell awareness ribbon.

In the article Manny is quoted as saying “It’s not only that we share the same blood disease, it’s like I have to do better for him.”

Since receiving the treatment, Manny’s SCD symptoms have disappeared.

Brandon Williams received the stem cell gene therapy to replace sickle cells with healthy red blood cells. The tattoo on his right forearm is in honor of his sister, Britney, who died of sickle cell disease. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

For Brandon Williams of Chicago, the story of SCD is a very personal one. At just 21 years old, Brandon had suffered four strokes by the time he turned 18. His older sister, Britney Williams, died of sickle cell disease at the age of 22. Brandon was devastated and felt that his own life could end at any moment. He was then told about the SCD trial and decided to enroll. Following the treatment, his symptoms have vanished along with the pain and fear inflicted by the disease.

Carmen Duncan participated in the stem cell gene therapy trial and no longer has sickle-cell symptoms. She wants to join the military, something that wasn’t an option until now. Photo courtesy of Sean Rayford for The New York Times

The NY Times piece also profiles Carmen Duncan, a 20 year old from Charleston, South Carolina. She had her spleen removed when she was just two years old as a result of complications form SCD. Duncan spent a large portion of her childhood in hospitals, coping with the pain in her arms and legs from blocked blood vessels. She enrolled in the SCD trial as well and she no longer has any signs of SCD. Duncan had aspirations to join the military but was unable to because of her condition. Now that she is symptom free, she plans to enlist.

This SCD clinical trial has multiple trial sites across the US, one which is the UCSF Alpha Stem Cell Clinic , a CIRM funded clinic specializing in the delivery of stem cell clinical trials to patients. CIRM awarded a $7,999,999 grant to help establish this site.

2 thoughts on “Gene therapy and blood stem cells cure sickle cell disease patients

  1. I would like to see this done for Kawasaki disease! It is a horrible life threatening Vasculitis where the child has aneurysms in the coronary arteries and in our case other areas of the body! We have saved umbilical cord stem cells and have them stored but find clinics are only using cells from the patients own body which may be less effective or ideal! We are waiting and hope this technology improves for our child before it’s too late!

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