The search for new ways to cure sickle cell

Researchers looking at stem cells as an option

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. - Sickle cell is a serious disease that causes pain, anemia, infection, organ damage, and even stroke. It's the most common inherited blood disorder in the United States. The good news is bone marrow transplants can be a cure. The bad news is not every patient has a matching donor. Now, researchers are looking at a new way to offer more patients transplants.

Madisyn Travis is  nine years old and she has sickle cell.

"It makes me feel bad and sometimes I have to go to the hospital," Madisyn said.

"It's really hard to see her life interrupted," said Denise Travis, Madisyn's mom.

However, soon Madisyn will get a bone marrow transplant to cure her disease. Her little brother or sister are both matches and one will be the donor.

Madisyn is one of the lucky ones. Only 14 percent of patients have a matching sibling.

"Ten years ago, we'd just tell them, ‘Sorry you have no family member. We can't transplant you,'" explained Shalini Shenoy, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Medical Director, Pediatric Stem Cell Transplant Program, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis Children's Hospital.

Shenoy is studying a new option for patients without related donors. Stem cells from a baby's umbilical cord can be infused in the arm. They travel to the bone marrow, settle there, and make new cells.

"Now, with this, we can take another 30 percent or 40 percent to transplant," Shenoy said.

Madisyn is excited about a cure and even though they annoy her at times, she'll have her brother and sister to thank for it.

Sickle cell is more common in minorities, occurring in about one in every 500 African Americans and about one in every one-thousand Hispanic Americans.

So far, just three patients have been treated with the umbilical cord blood transplant using unrelated donor cord blood. Ten research centers across the country are participating in Shenoy's study.

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