How a see-through fish could one day lead to substitutes for bone marrow transplants

Human blood stem cells

For years researchers have struggled to create human blood stem cells in the lab. They have done it several times with animal models, but the human kind? Well, that’s proved a bit trickier. Now a CIRM-funded team at UC San Diego (UCSD) think they have cracked the code. And that would be great news for anyone who may ever need a bone marrow transplant.

Why are blood stem cells important? Well, they help create our red and white blood cells and platelets, critical elements in carrying oxygen to all our organs and fighting infections. They have also become one of the most important weapons we have to combat deadly diseases like leukemia and lymphoma. Unfortunately, today we depend on finding a perfect or near-perfect match to make bone marrow transplants as safe and effective as possible and without a perfect match many patients miss out. That’s why this news is so exciting.

Researchers at UCSD found that the process of creating new blood stem cells depends on the action of three molecules, not two as was previously thought.

Zebrafish

Here’s where it gets a bit complicated but stick with me. The team worked with zebrafish, which use the same method to create blood stem cells as people do but also have the advantage of being translucent, so you can watch what’s going on inside them as it happens.  They noticed that a molecule called Wnt9a touches down on a receptor called Fzd9b and brings along with it something called the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). It’s the interaction of these three together that turns a stem cell into a blood cell.

In a news release, Stephanie Grainger, the first author of the study published in Nature Cell Biology, said this discovery could help lead to new ways to grow the cells in the lab.

“Previous attempts to develop blood stem cells in a laboratory dish have failed, and that may be in part because they didn’t take the interaction between EGFR and Wnt into account.”

If this new approach helps the team generate blood stem cells in the lab these could be used to create off-the-shelf blood stem cells, instead of bone marrow transplants, to treat people battling leukemia and/or lymphoma.

CIRM is also funding a number of other projects, several in clinical trials, that involve the use of blood stem cells. Those include treatments for: Beta Thalassemia; blood cancer; HIV/AIDS; and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency among others.

Promising start to CIRM-funded trial for life-threatening blood disorder

Aristotle

At CIRM we are always happy to highlight success stories, particularly when they involve research we are funding. But we are also mindful of the need not to overstate a finding. To quote the Greek philosopher Aristotle (who doesn’t often make an appearance on this blog), “one swallow does not a summer make”. In other words, one good result doesn’t mean you have proven something works.  But it might mean that you are on the right track. And that’s why we are welcoming the news about a clinical trial we are funding with Sangamo Therapeutics.  

The trial is for the treatment of beta-thalassemia, (beta-thal) a severe form of anemia caused by a genetic mutation. People with beta-thal require life-long blood transfusions because they have low levels of hemoglobin, a protein needed to help the blood carry oxygen around the body. Those low levels of oxygen can cause anemia, fatigue, weakness and, in severe cases, can lead to organ damage and even death. The life expectancy for people with the more severe forms of the condition is only 30-50 years.

In this clinical trial the Sangamo team takes a patient’s own blood stem cells and, using a gene-editing technology called zinc finger nuclease (ZFN), inserts a working copy of the defective hemoglobin gene. These modified cells are given back to the patient, hopefully generating a new, healthy, blood supply which potentially will eliminate the need for chronic blood transfusions.

Yesterday, Sangamo announced that the first patient treated in this clinical trial seems to be doing rather well.

The therapy, called ST-400, was given to a patient who has the most severe form of beta-thal. In the two years before this treatment the patient was getting a blood transfusion every other week. While the treatment initially caused an allergic reaction, the patient quickly rebounded and in the seven weeks afterwards:

  • Demonstrated evidence of being able to produce new blood cells including platelets and white blood cells
  • Showed that the genetic edits made by ST-400 were found in new blood cells
  • Hemoglobin levels – the amount of oxygen carried in the blood – improved.

In the first few weeks after the therapy the patient needed some blood transfusions but in the next five weeks didn’t need any.

Obviously, this is encouraging. But it’s also just one patient. We don’t yet know if this will continue to help this individual let alone help any others. A point Dr. Angela Smith, one of the lead researchers on the project, made in a news release:

“While these data are very early and will require confirmation in additional patients as well as longer follow-up to draw any clinical conclusion, they are promising. The detection of indels in peripheral blood with increasing fetal hemoglobin at seven weeks is suggestive of successful gene editing in this transfusion-dependent beta thalassemia patient. These initial results are especially encouraging given the patient’s β0/ β0 genotype, a patient population which has proved to be difficult-to-treat and where there is high unmet medical need.” It’s a first step. But a promising one. And that’s always a great way to start.

Organoids revolutionize approach to studying a variety of diseases

Organoids

There are limitations to studying cells under a microscope. To understand some of the more complex processes, it is critical to see how these cells behave in an environment that is similar to conditions in the body. The production of organoids has revolutionized this approach.

Organoids are three-dimensional structures derived from stem cells that have similar characteristics of an actual organ. There have been several studies recently published that have used this approach to understand a wide scope of different areas.

In one such instance, researchers at The University of Cambridge were able to grow a “mini-brain” from human stem cells. To demonstrate that this organoid had functional capabilities similar to that of an actual brain, the researchers hooked it up to a mouse spinal cord and surrounding muscle. What they found was remarkable– the “mini-brain” sent electrial signals to the spinal cord that made the surrounding muscles twitch. This model could pave the way for studying neurodegenerative diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Spinal muscular atrophy

Speaking of SMA, researchers in Singapore have used organoids to come up with some findings that might be able to help people battling the condition.

SMA is a neurodegenerative disease caused by a protein deficiency that results in nerve degeneration, paralysis and even premature death. The fact that it mainly affects children makes it even worse. Not much is known how SMA develops and even less how to treat or prevent it.

That’s where the research from the A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) comes in. Using the iPSC method they turned tissue samples from healthy people and people with SMA into spinal organoids.

They then compared the way the cells developed in the organoids and found that the motor nerve cells from healthy people were fully formed by day 35. However, the cells from people with SMA started to degenerate before they got to that point.

They also found that the protein problem that causes SMA to develop did so by causing the motor nerve cells to divide, something they don’t normally do. So, by blocking the mechanism that caused the cells to divide they were able to prevent the cells from dying.

In an article in Science and Technology Research News lead researcher Shi-Yan Ng said this approach could help unlock clues to other diseases such as ALS.

“We are one of the first labs to report the formation of spinal organoids. Our study presents a new method for culturing human spinal-cord-like tissues that could be crucial for future research.”

Just yesterday the CIRM Board awarded almost $4 million to Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics to try and develop a treatment for another debilitating back problem called degenerative spondylolisthesis.

And finally, organoid modeling was used to better understand and study an infectious disease. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin created fallopian tube organoids from normal human cells. Fallopian tubes are the pair of tubes found inside women along which the eggs travel from the ovaries to the uterus. The scientists observed the effects of chronic infections of Chlamydia, a sexually transmittable infection. It was discovered that chronic infections lead to permanent changes at the DNA level as the cells age. These changes to DNA are permanent even after the infection is cleared, and could be indicative of the increased risk of cervical cancer observed in women with Chlamydia or those that have contracted it in the past.

Newly developed biosensor can target leukemic stem cells

Dr. Michael Milyavsky (left) and his research student Muhammad Yassin (right). Image courtesy of Tel Aviv University.

Every three minutes, one person in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer, which amounts to over 175,000 people every year. Every nine minutes, one person in the United States dies from a blood cancer, which is over 58,000 people every year. These eye opening statistics from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society demonstrate why almost one in ten cancer deaths in 2018 were blood cancer related.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a blood cancer is any type of cancer that begins in blood forming tissue, such as those found in the bone marrow. One example of a blood cancer is leukemia, which results in the production of abnormal blood cells. Chemotherapy and radiation are used to wipe out these cells, but the blood cancer can sometimes return, something known as a relapse.

What enables the return of a blood cancer such as leukemia ? The answer lies in the properties of cancer stem cells, which have the ability to multiply and proliferate and can resist the effects of certain types of chemotherapy and radiation. Researchers at Tel Aviv University are looking to decrease the rate of relapse in blood cancer by targeting a specific type of cancer stem cell known as a leukemic stem cell, which are often found to be the most malignant.

Dr. Michael Milyavsky and his team at Tel Aviv University have developed a biosensor that is able to isolate, label, and target specific genes found in luekemic stem cells. Their findings were published on January 31, 2019 in Leukemia.

In a press release Dr. Milyavsky said:

“The major reason for the dismal survival rate in blood cancers is the inherent resistance of leukemic stem cells to therapy, but only a minor fraction of leukemic cells have high regenerative potential, and it is this regeneration that results in disease relapse. A lack of tools to specifically isolate leukemic stem cells has precluded the comprehensive study and specific targeting of these stem cells until now.”

In addition to isolating and labeling leukemic stem cells, Dr. Milyavsky and his team were able to demonstrate that the leukemic stem cells labeled by their biosensor were sensitive to an inexpensive cancer drug, highlighting the potential this technology has in creating more patient-specific treatment options.

In the article, Dr. Milyavsky said:

” Using this sensor, we can perform personalized medicine oriented to drug screens by barcoding a patient’s own leukemia cells to find the best combination of drugs that will be able to target both leukemia in bulk as well as leukemia stem cells inside it.”

The researchers are now investigating genes that are active in leukemic stem cells in the hope finding other druggable targets.

CIRM has funded two clinical trials that also use a more targeted approach for cancer treatment. One of these trials uses an antibody to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and the other trial uses a different antibody to treat acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

Antibody effective in cure for rare blood disorders

3D illustration of an antibody binding to a designated target.
Illustration created by Audra Geras.

A variety of diseases can be traced to a simple root cause: problems in the bone marrow. The bone marrow contains specialized stem cells known as hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) that give rise to different types of blood cells. As mentioned in a previous blog about Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), one problem that can occur is the production of “sickle like” red blood cells. In blood cancers like leukemia, there is an uncontrollable production of abnormal white blood cells. Another condition, known as myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), are a group of cancers in which immature blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature and therefore do not become healthy blood cells.

For diseases that originate in the bone marrow, one treatment involves introducing healthy HSCs from a donor or gene therapy. However, before this type of treatment can take place, all of the problematic HSCs must be eliminated from the patient’s body. This process, known as pre-treatment, involves a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, which can be extremely toxic and life threatening. There are some patients whose condition has progressed to the point where their bodies are not strong enough to withstand pre-treatment. Additionally, there are long-term side effects that chemotherapy and radiation can have on infant children that are discussed in a previous blog about pediatric brain cancer.

Could there be a targeted, non-toxic approach to eliminating unwanted HSCs that can be used in combination with stem cell therapies? Researchers at Stanford say yes and have very promising results to back up their claim.

Dr. Judith Shizuru and her team at Stanford University have developed an antibody that can eliminate problematic blood forming stem cells safely and efficiently. The antibody is able to identify a protein on HSCs and bind to it. Once it is bound, the protein is unable to function, effectively removing the problematic blood forming stem cells.

Dr. Shizuru is the senior author of a study published online on February 11th, 2019 in Blood that was conducted in mice and focused on MDS. The results were very promising, demonstrating that the antibody successfully depleted human MDS cells and aided transplantation of normal human HSCs in the MDS mouse model.

This proof of concept holds promise for MDS as well as other disease conditions. In a public release from Stanford Medicine, Dr. Shizuru is quoted as saying, “A treatment that specifically targets only blood-forming stem cells would allow us to potentially cure people with diseases as varied as sickle cell disease, thalassemia, autoimmune disorders and other blood disorders…We are very hopeful that this body of research is going to have a positive impact on patients by allowing better depletion of diseased cells and engraftment of healthy cells.”

The research mentioned was partially funded by us at CIRM. Additionally, we recently awarded a $3.7 million dollar grant to use the same antibody in a human clinical trial for the so-called “bubble baby disease”, which is also known as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). You can read more about that award on a previous blog post linked here.

Midwest universities are making important tools to advance stem cell research

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iPSCs are not just pretty, they’re also pretty remarkable

Two Midwest universities are making headlines for their contributions to stem cell research. Both are developing important tools to advance this field of study, but in two unique ways.

Scientists at the University of Michigan (UM), have compiled an impressive repository of disease-specific stem cell lines. Cell lines are crucial tools for scientists to study the mechanics of different diseases and allows them to do so without animal models. While animal models have important benefits, such as the ability to study a disease within the context of a living mammal, insights gained from such models can be difficult to translate to humans and many diseases do not even have good models to use.

The stem cell lines generated at the Reproductive Sciences Program at UM, are thanks to numerous individuals who donated extra embryos they did not use for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Researchers at UM then screened these embryos for abnormalities associated with different types of disease and generated some 36 different stem cell lines. These have been donated to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry, and include cell lines for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s Disease and hemophilia.

Using one such cell line, Dr. Peter Todd at UM, found that the genetic abnormality associated with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic mutation that results in developmental delays and learning disabilities, can be corrected by using a novel biological tool. Because Fragile X Syndrome does not have a good animal model, this stem cell line was critical for improving our understanding of this disease.

In the next state over, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), researchers are doing similar work but using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for their work.

The Human Stem Cell Gene Editing Service has proved to be an important resource in expediting research projects across campus. They use CRISPR-Cas9 technology (an efficient method to mutate or edit the DNA of any organism), to generate human stem cell lines that contain disease specific mutations. Researchers use these cell lines to determine how the mutation affects cells and/or how to correct the cellular abnormality the mutation causes. Unlike the work at UM, these stem cell lines are derived from iPSCs  which can be generated from easy to obtain human samples, such as skin cells.

The gene editing services at UWM have already proved to be so popular in their short existence that they are considering expanding to be able to accommodate off-campus requests. This highlights the extent to which both CRISPR technology and stem cell research are being used to answer important scientific questions to advance our understanding of disease.

CIRM also created an iPSC bank that researchers can use to study different diseases. The  Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSC) Repository is  the largest repository of its kind in the world and is used by researchers across the globe.

The iPSC Repository was created by CIRM to house a collection of stem cells from thousands of individuals, some healthy, but some with diseases such as heart, lung or liver disease, or disorders such as autism. The goal is for scientists to use these cells to better understand diseases and develop and test new therapies to combat them. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to study the cell types from patients that are affected in disease, but for which cells cannot otherwise be easily obtained in large quantities.

Stories that Caught Our Eye: New ways to heal old bones; and keeping track of cells once they are inside you

broken bones

How Youth Factor Can Help Repair Old Bones

As we get older things that used to heal quickly tend to take a little longer to get better. In some cases, a lot longer. Take bones for example. A fracture in someone who is in their 70’s often doesn’t heal as quickly, or completely, as in someone much younger. For years researchers have been working on ways to change that. Now we may be one step closer to doing just that.

We know that using blood stem cells can help speed up healing for bone fractures (CIRM is funding work on that) and now researchers at Duke Health believe they have figured out how that works.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, identifies what the Duke team call the “youth factor” inside bone marrow stem cells. It’s a type of white blood cell called a macrophage. They say the proteins these macrophages produce help stimulate bone repair.

In a news story in Medicine News Line  Benjamin Alman, senior author on the study, says:

“While macrophages are known to play a role in repair and regeneration, prior studies do not identify secreted factors responsible for the effect. Here we show that young macrophage cells play a role in the rejuvenation process, and injection of one of the factors produced by the young cells into a fracture in old mice rejuvenates the pace of repair. This suggests a new therapeutic approach to fracture rejuvenation.”

Next step, testing this in people.

A new way to track stem cells in the body

It’s one thing to transplant stem cells into a person’s body. It’s another to know that they are going to go where you want them to and do what you want them to. University of Washington researchers have invented a device that doesn’t just track where the cells end up, but also what happens to them along the way.

The device is called “CellTagging”, and in an article in Health Medicine Network, Samantha Morris, one of the lead researchers says this could help in better understanding how to use stem cells to grow replacement tissues and organs.

“There is a lot of interest in the potential of regenerative medicine — growing tissues and organs in labs — to test new drugs, for example, or for transplants one day. But we need to understand how the reprogramming process works. We want to know if the process for converting skin cells to heart cells is the same as for liver cells or brain cells. What are the special conditions necessary to turn one cell type into any other cell type? We designed this tool to help answer these questions.”

In the study, published in the journal Nature, the researchers explain how they use a virus to insert tiny DNA “barcodes” into cells and that as the cells travel through the body they are able to track them.

Morris says this could help scientists better understand the conditions needed to more effectively program cells to do what we want them to.

“Right now, cell reprogramming is really inefficient. When you take one cell population, such as skin cells, and turn it into a different cell population — say intestinal cells — only about 1 percent of cells successfully reprogram. And because it’s such a rare event, scientists have thought it is likely to be a random process — there is some correct set of steps that a few cells randomly hit upon. We found the exact opposite. Our technology lets us see that if a cell starts down the right path to reprogramming very early in the process, all of its related sibling cells and their descendants are on the same page, doing the same thing.”

Stories that caught our eye: Is a Texas law opening up access to stem cell treatments working? Another CIRM-funded company gets good news from the FDA.

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Texas Capitol. (Shutterstock)

In 2017 Texas passed a sweeping new law, HB 810, which allowed medical clinics to provide “investigational stem cell treatments to patients with certain severe chronic diseases or terminal illnesses.” Those in favor of the law argued that patients battling life-threatening or life-changing diseases should have the right to try stem cell therapies that were involved in a clinical trial.

Now a new study, published in the journal Stem Cells and Development, looks at the impact of the law. The report says that despite some recent amendments t there are still some concerns about the law including:

  • It allows treatment only if the patient has a “severe, chronic” illness but doesn’t define what that means
  • It doesn’t have clearly defined procedures on tracking and reporting procedures so it’s hard to know how many patients might be treated and what the outcomes are
  • There is no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight of the patients being treated
  • Because the treatments are unproven there are fears this will “open up the state to unsavory and predatory practices by individuals preying on vulnerable patients”

The researchers conclude:

“While HB 810 opens up access to patients, it also increases significant risks for their safety and financial cost for something that might have no positive impact on their disease. Truly understanding the impact of stem cell based interventions (SCBI) requires scientific rigor, and accurate outcome data reporting must be pursued to ensure the safety and efficacy behind such procedures. This information must be readily available so that patients can make informed decisions before electing to pursue such treatments. The creation of the SCBI registry could allow for some level of scientific rigor, provide a centralized data source, and offer the potential for better informed patient choices, and might be the best option for the state to help protect patients.”

Another CIRM-funded company gets RMAT designation

Poseida

When Congress approved the 21st Century Cures Act a few years ago one of the new programs it created was the Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT) designation. This was given to therapies that are designed to treat a serious or life-threatening condition, where early clinical stage trials show the approach is safe and appears to be effective.

Getting an RMAT designation is a big deal. It means the company or researchers are able to apply for an expedited review by the FDA and could get approval for wider use.

This week Poseida Therapeutics was granted RMAT designation by the Food and drug Administration (FDA) for P-BCMA-101, its CAR-T therapy for relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma. This is currently in a Phase 1 clinical trial that CIRM is funding

In this trial Poseida’s technology takes an immunotherapy approach that uses the patient’s own engineered immune system T cells to seek and destroy cancerous myeloma cells.

In a news release Eric Ostertag, Poseida’s CEO, welcomed the news:

“Initial Phase 1 data presented at the CAR-TCR Summit earlier this year included encouraging response rates and safety data, including meaningful responses in a heavily pretreated population. We expect to have an additional data update by the end of the year and look forward to working closely with the FDA to expedite development of P-BCMA-101.”

This means that five CIRM-funded companies have now been granted RMAT designations:

Stories that caught our eye: SanBio’s Traumatic Brain Injury trial hits its target; A new approach to endometriosis; and a SCID kid celebrates Halloween in style

TBI

Traumatic brain injury: graphic courtesy Brainline.org

Hopeful signs for treating brain injuries

There are more than 200,000 cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the US every year. The injuries can be devastating, resulting in everything from difficult sleeping to memory loss, depression and severe disability. There is no cure. But this week the SanBio Group had some encouraging news from its Phase 2 STEMTRA clinical trial.

In the trial patients with TBI were given stem cells, derived from the bone marrow of healthy adult donors. When transplanted into the area of injury in the brain, these cells appear to promote recovery by stimulating the brain’s own regenerative ability.

In this trial the cells demonstrated what the company describes as “a statistically significant improvement in their motor function compared to the control group.”

CIRM did not fund this research but we are partnering with SanBio on another clinical trial targeting stroke.

 

Using a woman’s own cells to heal endometriosis

Endometriosis is an often painful condition that is caused when the cells that normally line the inside of the uterus grow outside of it, causing scarring and damaging other tissues. Over time it can result in severe pain, infertility and increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer.

There is no effective long-term treatment but now researchers at Northwestern Medicine have developed an approach, using the woman’s own cells, that could help treat the problem.

The researchers took cells from women, turned them into iPS pluripotent stem cells and then converted those into healthy uterine cells. In laboratory tests these cells responded to the progesterone, the hormone that plays a critical role in the uterus.

In a news release, Dr. Serdar Bulun, a senior author of the study, says this opens the way to testing these cells in women:

“This is huge. We’ve opened the door to treating endometriosis. These women with endometriosis start suffering from the disease at a very early age, so we end up seeing young high school girls getting addicted to opioids, which totally destroys their academic potential and social lives.”

The study is published in the journal Stem Cell Reports.

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Happy Halloween from a scary SCID kid

A lot of the research we write about on the Stem Cellar focuses on potential treatments or new approaches that show promise. So every once in a while, it’s good to remind ourselves that there are already stem cell treatments that are not just showing promise, they are saving lives.

That is the case with Ja’Ceon Golden. Regular readers of our blog know that Ja’Ceon was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) also known as “bubble baby disease” when he was just a few months old. Children born with SCID often die in the first few years of life because they don’t have a functioning immune system and so even a simple infection can prove life-threatening.

Fortunately Ja’Ceon was enrolled in a CIRM-funded clinical trial at UC San Francisco where his own blood stem cells were genetically modified to correct the problem.

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Today he is a healthy, happy, thriving young boy. These pictures, taken by his great aunt Dannie Hawkins, including one of him in his Halloween costume, show how quickly he is growing. And all thanks to some amazing researchers, an aunt who wouldn’t give up on him, and the support of CIRM.

Living with sickle cell disease: one person’s story of pain and prejudice and their hopes for a stem cell therapy

Whenever we hold an in-person Board meeting at CIRM we like to bring along a patient or patient advocate to address the Board. Hearing from the people they are trying to help, who are benefiting or may benefit from a therapy CIRM is funding, reminds them of the real-world implications of the decisions they make and the impact they have on people’s lives.

At our most recent meeting Marissa Cors told her story.

Marissa at ICOC side view copy

Marissa Cors addressing the CIRM Board

My name is Marissa Cors, I have sickle cell disease. I was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at six months of age. I am now 40. Sickle cell has been a part of my life every day of my life.

The treatments you are supporting and funding here at CIRM are very important. They offer a potential cure to a disease that desperately needs one. I want to tell you just how urgently people with sickle cell need a cure.

I have been hospitalized so many times that my medical record is now more than 8 gigabytes. I have almost 900 pages in my medical record from my personal doctor alone.

I live with pain every day of my life but because you can’t see pain most people have no idea how bad it can be. The pain comes in two forms:

Chronic pain – this comes from the damage that sickle cell disease does to the body over many years. My right knee, my left clavicle, my lower back are all damaged because of the disease. I get chronic headaches. All these are the result of a lifetime of crisis.

Acute pain – this is the actual crisis that can’t be controlled, where the pain is so intense and the risk of damage to my organs so great that it requires hospitalization. That hospitalization can result in yet more pain, not physical but emotional and psychological pain.

But those are just the simple facts. So, let me tell you what it’s really like to live with sickle cell disease.

Marissa at ICOC front, smiling

It means being in a constant state of limbo and a constant state of unknown because you have no idea when the next crisis is going to come and take over and you have to stop your life. You have absolutely no idea how bad the pain will be or how long it will last.

It is a constant state of frustration and upset and even a constant state of guilt because it is your responsibility to put in place all the safety nets and plans order to keep life moving as normally as possible, not just for you but for everyone else around you. And you know that when a crisis comes, and those plans get ripped up that it’s not just your own life that gets put on hold while you try to deal with the pain, it’s the lives of those you love.

It means having to put your life on hold so often that it’s hard to have a job, hard to have a career or lead a normal life. Hard to do the things everyone else takes for granted. For example, in my 30’s, while all my friends from home and college were building careers and getting married and having families, I was in a cancer ward trying to stay alive, because that’s where they put you when you have sickle cell disease. The cancer ward.

People talk about new medications now that are more effective at keeping the disease under control. But let me tell you. As a black woman walking into a hospital Emergency Room saying I am having a sickle cell crisis and need pain medications, and then naming the ones I need, too often I don’t get treated as a patient, I get treated as a drug addict, a drug seeker.

Even when the doctors do agree to give me the medications I need they often act in a way that clearly shows they don’t believe me. They ask, “How do we know this is a crisis, why is it taking you so long for the medication to take effect?” These are people who spent a few days in medical school reading from a textbook about sickle cell disease. I have spent a lifetime living with it and apparently that’s still not enough for them to trust that I do know what I am talking about.

That’s when I usually say, “Goodbye and don’t forget to send in your replacement doctor because I can’t work with you.”

I have had doctors take away my medication because they wanted to see how I would react without it.

If I dare to question what a doctor or nurse does, they frequently tell me they have to go and take care of other patients who are really sick, not like me.

Even when I talk in my “nice white lady” voice they still treat me and call me “an angry black girl”. Girl. I’m a 40 year old woman but I get treated like a child.

It’s hard to be in the hospital surrounded by doctors and nurses and yet feel abandoned by the medical staff around you.

This month alone 25 people have died from sickle cell in the US. It’s not because we don’t have treatments that can help. It’s due to negligence, not getting the right care at the right time.

I know the work you do here at CIRM won’t change those attitudes. But maybe the research you support could find a cure for sickle cell, so people like me don’t have to endure the pain, the physical, emotional and spiritual pain, that the disease brings every day.

You can read about the work CIRM is funding targeting sickle cell disease, including two clinical trials, on this page on our website.