Story at a glance

  • Scientists believe that gene therapy, or using genetic material to abait disease, can help treat sickle cell disease.
  • Sickle cell disease occurs when red blood cells mutate into a sickle shape and cannot transport blood throughout the body.
  • Two successful therapies work to increase the healthy production of hemoglobin.

An effective and innovative way to treat people with sickle cell anemia using gene therapy may soon be available thanks to efforts by several pharmaceutical companies, a Bloomberg report says

Sickle cell anemia, a genetic defect that causes red blood cells to form in the shape of a sickle, hinders the body’s ability to adequately distribute oxygen. This is due to atypical hemoglobin molecules, which is the protein in blood that transports oxygen. Sickle cell disease can be extremely painful, causing blood cells to get trapped in blood vessels and lead to heart failure, debilitating fatigue, strokes and blood clots. About 100,000 people suffer from sickle cell anemia in the U.S, with African Americans being disproportionately affected by this condition.

New developments with gene therapy, however, could work to have a positive impact on these symptoms. One of the innovative manufacturers, Bluebird Bio, stole the show at the annual conference of the American Society of Hematology in Florida. Its product, LentiGlobin, debuted positive results; in 17 patients treated with LentiGlobin, more than 40 percent of the hemoglobin in patients' red blood cells appeared in a healthier form thanks to gene therapy, per the article

Bluebird isn’t the only biotechnology making strides in gene therapies. Another potential treatment being researched is based on the technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a gene-editing tool that is being used for a wide range of biomedical applications. 

Documented in an NPR report, sickle cell patient Victoria Gray recently became the first person in the U.S. to have billions of her own cells genetically edited with CRISPR and reintroduced into her body. These cells will hopefully produce fetal hemoglobin to compensate for the faulty hemoglobin in Gray’s red blood cells. The trial is being expanded to include more patients and is being conducted by Vertex Pharmaceuticals and CRISPR Therapeutics of the Boston area.

Current treatments for sickle cell include blood and bone marrow transfusions and medication. Studies on gene therapy treatments have been encouraging so far, but there is more testing to be done before either CRISPR or LentiGlobin hits the market. 

Published on Dec 10, 2019