Curing Sickle Cell Anemia With Chemo-Free Stem Cell Transplants

Iesha Thomas, 33, has been in and out of hospitals battling sickle cell disease since she was only 8 months old. Now she can boast of being the first of 13 patients to be cured of sickle cell disease with a chemotherapy-free procedure at University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System (UI Health) as part of a clinical trial.
Stem cell transplants have been used for years as a means of possibly curing sickle cell disease. However, before the stem cell transplant could be completed patients would have to endure a taxing course of drugs to kill the cancer cells, otherwise known as chemotherapy — which shuts down their immune system and makes them vulnerable to infections.
The new technique was first developed and performed at the National Institutes of Health, eliminating the need for chemotherapy to prepare the patient to receive the transplanted cells and offers the prospect of cure for tens of thousands of adults suffering from sickle cell disease – many of them African Americans.

1 in 13 African Americans is born with that sickle cell trait; about 1 in every 365 is born with sickle cell disease.

“Adults with sickle cell disease are now living on average until about age 50 with blood transfusions and drugs to help with pain crises, but their quality of life can be very low,” says Dr. Damiano Rondelli, a chief and director at UI Health and Professor of Hematology in the UIC College of Medicine.
“Now, with this chemotherapy-free transplant, we are curing adults with sickle cell disease, and we see that their quality of life improves vastly within just one month of the transplant.”
The patients and their healthy sibling donor candidates were tested for the human leukocyte antigen, a set of markers found on cells in the body. Ten of the markers had to match between the donor and the recipient for the transplant to have the best chance of evading rejection.
In all 13 patients, the transplanted cells successfully took up residence in the marrow and produced healthy red blood cells. In addition, physicians at UI Health successfully transplanted two patients with cells from siblings whose markers matched their sibling donors, but had different blood types.
Further research on this type of stem cell transplant is needed, but doctors are hopeful for what early trials show for adults.

To learn more about ongoing sickle cell transplant trials at NIH (a participant in a trial will not be charged for a procedure) call 1-800-411-1222 or visit the NIH clinical trials registry at and search under ‘sickle cell disease.”

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