Clinical trial coming to UAB could result in cure for sickle cell disease

Updated: Mar. 21, 2019 at 10:51 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - A clinical trial that could result in a universal cure for Sickle Cell disease will be coming to UAB in the next couple of months.

“I’ve been thinking about it and praying about it,” says Diva Hill. The 21-year-old patient from Bessemer says the intense pain of the disease caused her to need a cane to walk across the stage at her high school graduation and has hospitalized her three times already this year.

But Dr. Julie Kanter, Director of UAB’s Adult Sickle Cell program, says the medical center has just been approved to take part in a clinical trial that started at the National Institutes of Health about five years ago.

This gene therapy approach removes a patient’s stem cells, adds a corrective gene to keep the patient’s red blood cells from forming a dangerous sickle shape, and returning the cells using a form of the AIDS virus whose harmful elements have been removed.

Dr. Kanter, who recently moved to UAB from the Medical University of South Carolina, says the therapy is having success with patients who are trying it. “There was one specific patient, he was an N-I-H patient, he was running three miles by six months out, and he had never run three miles in his life,” said Dr. Kanter.

For roughly 20 years, doctors have been able to remove sickle cell symptoms through bone marrow transfusions for those patients who had donors in their immediate family.

UAB is about two months away from starting its trial of the therapy, which Kanter says could lead to a universal, commercially available cure within just a couple of years if all goes well.

When it does, Diva Hill will be ready. Given the chance to live a life without the unpredictable pain of sickle cell, Hill knows exactly where she wants to learn to become a nurse.

“I would try to enlist in the Army and try to get my family out of Bessemer and take care of them because they take care of me through everything I go through,” said Hill.

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