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Special Section:
Sickle Cell Disease

Latest Sickle Cell Research

Dr. John Tisdale

In 2009, NHLBI's Dr. John Tisdale led a team of NIH scientists in groundbreaking research seeking a cure for sickle cell disease.
Photo: NHLBI

While there is no widely available cure for sickle cell disease, there are treatments for its symptoms and complications. Over the past several decades, scientists and doctors have learned a great deal about sickle cell disease. They know its causes, how it affects the body, and how to treat many of its complications. Thanks to improved treatment and care, people who have sickle cell disease are now living into their 40s or 50s or longer. The NHLBI continues to support efforts to find new and better treatments for sickle cell disease. Recent and current research efforts include:

  • In 2009, scientists discovered that a modified transplant of adult blood stem cells could improve sickle cell disease in 9 of 10 adults who had been severely affected by the disease. The research, carried out at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., was a milestone in the search to cure sickle cell disease. Dr. John Tisdale led the team of researchers from the NHLBI, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
  • In 2009, the NHLBI launched an initiative called Exploratory Studies in the Neurobiology of Pain in Sickle Cell Disease. Studies funded under the initiative allow experienced pain researchers to learn more about the biology of pain in sickle cell disease and to lay the groundwork for the development of effective drug treatments. One study is examining whether African American adults with sickle cell disease have different ways of experiencing pain compared to matched healthy adults. Other studies are evaluating pain perception in animal models of sickle cell disease.
  • In 2010, a study found that neurologically normal adults with sickle cell disease scored lower on tests of brain function than neurologically normal adult participants who did not have sickle cell disease, suggesting that the disease may affect the brain more than previously thought. This finding was part of the first study to examine brain function in adults with sickle cell disease and was funded by the NHLBI. A second study is ongoing to evaluate the impact of a new treatment on brain function.

Other current and future research efforts include studies of:

  • Genetic factors affecting sickle cell disease symptoms
  • Regulation of hemoglobin production
  • Development of drugs to increase fetal hemoglobin production
  • Transplantation of blood-forming stem cells
  • Gene therapy
  • New treatments for pain
  • Optimal uses of blood transfusion
  • Management of iron overload associated with blood transfusions
  • Development of animal models for preclinical studies
  • Complications of sickle cell trait

100 Years of Sickle Cell Research

Dr. James B. Herrick

Dr. James B. Herrick
Photo: National Library of Medicine

In 1910, Dr. James B. Herrick, a physician at Presbyterian Hospital and professor of medicine at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Ill., published an article on the case of an anemic West Indian dental student, Walter Clement Noel. Herrick's laboratory findings of the patient's"peculiar elongated and sickle-shaped" red blood cells were the first description of sickle cell disease in Western medical literature.

"This case is reported because of the unusual blood findings, no duplicate of which I have ever seen described."

— James B. Herrick, M.D.

To mark the centennial of the publication of Herrick's report, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held the James B. Herrick Symposium–Sickle Cell Disease Care and Research: Past, Present, and Future, in November on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. Eight NIH Institutes and Centers sponsored the symposium, which brought together sickle cell disease experts from around the globe.

Winter 2011 Issue: Volume 5 Number 4 Page 21