Iesha Thomas has been in and out of hospitals battling sickle cell disease since she was only 8 months old. This summer, 33-year-old Thomas became the first adult to be cured of sickle cell disease with a chemotherapy-free procedure at University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System (UI Health), the University reported. Thomas is one of 12 adult patients cured of sickle cell disease as part of a clinical trial at UI Health that used a unique procedure for stem cell transplantation from healthy tissue matched from a sibling donor.
Findings from phase I/II of the clinical trial are published online in the journal Biology of Blood & Marrow Transplantation.
A Less Harsh Treatment
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.
The more traditional form of stem cell transplant uses chemotherapy to destroy the patient’s own bone marrow, which shuts down their immune system and makes them vulnerable to infections.
The new technique – first developed and performed at the National Institutes of Health campus in Maryland – eliminates 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 Black Americans.
According to the National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute (NIH), about 1 in 13 African American babies is born with sickle cell trait. About 1 in every 365 black children is born with sickle cell disease.
About 90 percent of the approximately 450 patients who have received stem cell transplants for sickle cell disease have been children. Chemotherapy has been considered too risky for adult patients, who are often more weakened than children by the 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, chief of hematology/oncology and director of the blood and marrow transplant program at UI Health, and corresponding author on the paper.