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sickle cell disease

Accelerating Cures in the Genomic Age: The Sickle Cell Example

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Sickle Cell Disease Symbol
Credit: Jill George, NIH

Forty-five years ago, when I was a first-year medical student, a lecturer introduced me to a young man with sickle cell disease (SCD). Sickle cell disease is the first “molecular disease”, with its cause having been identified decades ago. That helped me see the connection between the abstract concepts of molecular genetics and their real-world human consequences in a way no textbook could. In fact, it inspired some of my earliest research on human hemoglobin disorders, which I conducted as a postdoctoral fellow.

Today, I’m heartened to report that, thanks to decades of biomedical advances, we stand on the verge of a cure for SCD. While at the American Society of Hematology meeting in San Diego last week, I was excited to be part of a discussion about how the tools and technologies arising from the Human Genome Project are accelerating the quest for cures.

The good news at the meeting included some promising, early results from human clinical trials of SCD gene therapies, including new data from the NIH Clinical Center. Researchers also presented very encouraging pre-clinical work on how gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, can be used in ways that may open the door to curing everyone with SCD. In fact, just days before the meeting, the first clinical trial for a CRISPR approach to SCD opened.

One important note: the gene editing research aimed at curing SCD is being done in non-reproductive (somatic) cells. The NIH does not support the use of gene editing technologies in human embryos (germline). I recently reiterated our opposition to germline gene editing, in response to an unethical experiment by a researcher in China who claims to have used CRISPR editing on embryos to produce twin girls resistant to HIV.

SCD affects approximately 100,000 people in the United States, and another 20 million worldwide, mostly in developing nations. This inherited, potentially life-threatening disorder is caused by a specific point mutation in a gene that codes for the beta chain of hemoglobin, a molecule found in red blood cells that deliver oxygen throughout the body. In people with SCD, the mutant hemoglobin forms insoluble aggregates when de-oxygenated. As a result the red cells assume a sickle shape, rather than the usual donut shape. These sickled cells clump together and stick in small blood vessels, resulting in severe pain, blood cell destruction, anemia, stroke, pulmonary hypertension, organ failure, and much too often, early death.

The need for a widespread cure for SCD is great. Since 1998, doctors have used a drug called hydroxyurea to reduce symptoms, but it can cause serious side effects and increase the risk of certain cancers. Blood transfusions can also ease symptoms in certain instances, but they too come with risks and complications. At the present time, the only way to cure SCD is a bone marrow transplant. However, transplants are not an option for many patients due to lack of matched marrow donors.

The good news is that novel genetic approaches have raised hopes of a widespread cure for SCD, possibly even within five to 10 years. So, in September, NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute launched the Cure Sickle Cell Initiative to accelerate development of the most promising of these next generation of therapies

At the ASH meeting, that first wave of this progress was evident. A team led by NHLBI’s John Tisdale, in collaboration with Bluebird bio, Cambridge, MA, was among the groups that presented impressive early results from human clinical trials testing novel gene replacement therapies for SCD. In the NIH trial, researchers removed blood precursor cells, called hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), from a patient’s own bone marrow or bloodstream and used a harmless virus to insert a sickle-resistant hemoglobin gene. Then, after a chemotherapy infusion to condition the patient’s existing bone marrow, they returned the corrected cells to the patient.

So far, nine SCD patients have received the most advanced form of the experimental gene therapy, and Tisdale presented data on those who were farthest out from treatment [1,2]. His team found that in the four patients who were at least six months out, levels of gene therapy-derived hemoglobin were found to equal or exceed their levels of SCD hemoglobin.

Very cool science, but what does this mean for SCD patients’ health and well-being? Well, none of the gene therapy trial participants have required a blood transfusion during the follow-up period. In addition, improvements were seen in their hemoglobin levels and key markers of blood-cell destruction (total bilirubin concentration, lactate dehydrogenase, and reticulocyte counts) compared to baseline. Most importantly, in the years leading up to the clinical trial, all of the participants had experienced frequent painful sickle crises, in which sickled cells blocked their blood vessels. No such episodes were reported among the participants in the months after they received the gene therapy.

Researchers did report that one patient receiving this form of gene therapy developed myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a serious condition in which the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal. However, there is no indication that the gene replacement technology itself caused the problem, and MDS has previously been linked to the chemotherapy drugs used in conditioning regimens before bone marrow transplants.

The NIH trial is just one of several clinical trials for SCD that are using viral vectors to deliver a variety of genes with therapeutic potential. Other trials actively recruiting are led by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

While it’s hoped that genes inserted by viral vectors will provide long-lasting or curative treatment, other researchers are betting that new gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, will offer the best chance for developing a widespread cure for SCD. One strategy being eyed by these “gene editors” is to correct the SCD mutation, replacing it with a normal gene. Another strategy involves knocking out certain DNA sequences to reactivate production of fetal hemoglobin (HbF).

The HbF protein is produced in the developing fetus to give it better access to oxygen from the mother’s bloodstream. But shortly after birth, the production of fetal hemoglobin shuts down, and the adult form kicks in. Adults normally have very low levels of fetal hemoglobin, which makes sense. However, from genome-wide association studies of human genetic variation, we know that that actual levels of HbF are under genetic control.

A major factor has been mapped to the BCL11A gene, which has subsequently been found to be a master mediator for the fetal to adult hemoglobin switch. Specifically, variations in a red cell specific enhancer of BCL11A affect an adult’s level of HbF— levels of BCL11A protein lead to higher amounts of fetal hemoglobin. Furthermore, it’s been known for some time that rare individuals keep on producing relatively high levels of hemoglobin into adulthood. If people with SCD happen to have a rare mutation that keeps fetal hemoglobin production active in adulthood (the first of these was found as part of my postdoctoral research), their SCD symptoms are much less severe.

Currently, two groups—CRISPR Therapeutics/Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Sangamo Therapeutics/Bioverativ—are gearing up to begin the first U.S. human clinical trials of gene-editing for SCD within the next few months. While they employ different technologies, both approaches involve removing a patient’s HSCs, using gene editing to knock out the BCL11A red cell enhancer, and then returning the gene-edited cells to the patient. The hope is that the gene-edited cells will greatly boost fetal hemoglobin production, thereby offsetting the effects of SCD.

All of this is exciting news for the 100,000 people living in the United States who have SCD. But what about the 300,000 babies born with SCD every year in other parts of the world, mostly in low- and middle-income countries?

The complicated, high-tech procedures that I just described may not be practical for a very long time in places like sub-Saharan Africa. That’s one reason why NIH recently launched a new effort to speed the development of safe, effective genome-editing approaches that could be delivered directly into a patient’s body (in vivo), perhaps by infusion of the CRISPR gene editing apparatus. Recent preclinical experiments demonstrating the promise of in vivo gene editing for Duchenne muscular dystrophy make me optimistic that NIH’s Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program, which is hosting its first gathering of investigators this week, will be able to develop similar approaches for SCD and many other conditions.

While moving forward in this fast-paced field, it is important that we remain ethical, but also remain bold on behalf of the millions of patients with genetic diseases who are still waiting for a cure. We must continue to assess and address the very serious ethical concerns raised by germline gene editing of human embryos, which will irreversibly alter the DNA instruction book of future children and affect future generations. I continue to argue that we are not ready to undertake such experiments.

But the use of gene editing to treat, perhaps even to cure, children and adults with genetic diseases, by correcting the mutation in their relevant tissues (so-called somatic cell gene editing), without risk of passing those changes on to a future generation, holds enormous promise. Somatic cell gene editing is associated with ethical issues that are much more in line with decades of deep thinking about benefits and risks of therapeutic trials.

Finally, we must recognize that somatic cell gene editing is a profoundly promising approach not only for people with SCD, but for all who are struggling with the thousands of diseases that still have no treatments or cures. Real hope for cures has never been greater.


[1] NIH researcher presents encouraging results for gene therapy for severe sickle cell disease. NIH News Release. December 4, 2018 

[2] Bluebird bio presents new data for LentiGlobin gene therapy in sickle cell disease at 60th annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. Bluebird bio. December 3, 2018 


Sickle Cell Disease (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (NHLBI)

John Tisdale (NHLBI)

Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program (Common Fund/NIH)

What are genome editing and CRISPR-Cas9? (National Library of Medicine/NIH) (NIH) 

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Common Fund

Red Blood Cells and Mercury

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Red blood cells after mercury exposure

Credit: Courtney Fleming, Birnur Akkaya, and Umut Gurkan, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland

Mercury is a naturally occurring heavy metal and a well-recognized environmental toxin. When absorbed into the bloodstream at elevated levels, mercury is also extremely harmful to people, causing a range of problems including cognitive impairments, skin rashes, and kidney problems [1].

In this illustration, it’s possible to see in red blood cells the effects of mercury chloride, a toxic chemical compound now sometimes used as a laboratory reagent. Normally, healthy red blood cells have a distinct, doughnut-like shape that helps them squeeze through the tiniest of blood vessels. But these cells are terribly disfigured, with unusual spiky projections, after 24 hours of exposure to low levels of a mercury chloride in solution.

What a Year It Was! A Look Back at Research Progress in 2017

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I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Hope your 2018 is off to a great start.

Over the holidays, the journal Science published its annual, end-of-the-year list of research breakthroughs, from anthropology to zoology. I always look forward to seeing the list and reflecting on some of the stunning advances reported in the past 12 months. Last year was no exception. Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year, as chosen by its editors, was in the field of astrophysics. Scientists were able to witness the effects of the collision of two neutron stars—large stars with collapsed inner cores—smacking into each other 130 million light years away. How cool is that!

Numbered prominently among the nine other breakthroughs were five from biomedicine: gene therapy, gene editing, cancer immunotherapy, cryo-EM, and biology preprints. All involved varying degrees of NIH support, and all drew great interest from readers. In fact, three of the top four vote-getters in the “People’s Choice” category came from biomedicine. That includes the People’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year: gene therapy success. And so, in what has become a Director’s Blog tradition, I’ll kick off our new year of posts by taking a closer look at these biomedical breakthroughs—starting with the little girl in the collage above, and moving clockwise around the images:

Huntington’s Disease: Gene Editing Shows Promise in Mouse Studies

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Cas9 clipping the Huntington's repeatsMy father was a folk song collector, and I grew up listening to the music of Woody Guthrie. On July 14th, folk music enthusiasts will be celebrating the 105th anniversary of Guthrie’s birth in his hometown of Okemah, OK. Besides being renowned for writing “This Land is Your Land” and other folk classics, Guthrie has another more tragic claim to fame: he provided the world with a glimpse at the devastation caused by a rare, inherited neurological disorder called Huntington’s disease.

When Guthrie died from complications of Huntington’s a half-century ago, the disease was untreatable. Sadly, it still is. But years of basic science advances, combined with the promise of innovative gene editing systems such as CRISPR/Cas9, are providing renewed hope that we will someday be able to treat or even cure Huntington’s disease, along with many other inherited disorders.

Regenerative Medicine: Making Blood Stem Cells in the Lab

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Endothelial cells becoming hematopoietic stem cells

Caption: Arrow in first panel points to an endothelial cell induced to become hematopoietic stem cell (HSC). Second and third panels show the expansion of HSCs over time.
Credit: Raphael Lis, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, NY

Bone marrow transplants offer a way to cure leukemia, sickle cell disease, and a variety of other life-threatening blood disorders.There are two major problems, however: One is many patients don’t have a well-matched donor to provide the marrow needed to reconstitute their blood with healthy cells. Another is even with a well-matched donor, rejection or graft versus host disease can occur, and lifelong immunosuppression may be needed.

A much more powerful option would be to develop a means for every patient to serve as their own bone marrow donor. To address this challenge, researchers have been trying to develop reliable, lab-based methods for making the vital, blood-producing component of bone marrow: hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs).

Two new studies by NIH-funded research teams bring us closer to achieving this feat. In the first study, researchers developed a biochemical “recipe” to produce HSC-like cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which were derived from mature skin cells. In the second, researchers employed another approach to convert mature mouse endothelial cells, which line the inside of blood vessels, directly into self-renewing HSCs. When these HSCs were transplanted into mice, they fully reconstituted the animals’ blood systems with healthy red and white blood cells.

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