As experts learn more about sickle cell disease, they’ve found new therapies – including transplants and medications – that can help patients cope with symptoms of the chronic illness.

News | 9 months ago

Sickle Cell Disease, Part 3: Innovative – and Proven – Therapies

As experts learn more about sickle cell disease, they’ve found new therapies – including transplants and medications – that can help patients cope with symptoms of the chronic illness.
This is part three of a four-part series on Atrium Health’s innovative, holistic approach to sickle cell disease care.

The symptoms of sickle cell disease – pain, fatigue and the risk of stroke and infection – can become debilitating to those who face it. As a leader in the treatment and research of sickle cell disease, Atrium Health strives to provide patients with new and alternative sources of therapy to manage their condition.

Managing the Pain of Sickle Cell Disease

Because of the chronic pain that comes with sickle cell disease, long-term use of powerful pain medications, like narcotics, is common. This, however, poses the risk of patients’ dependency on pain medications, in which the solution to one problem becomes the cause of another.

The dependence can create continued pain, as the body’s tolerance to medication builds. Additionally, withdrawal symptoms these patients may face can be so severe that it becomes nearly impossible to maintain a job, attend classes or fulfill the obligations of daily living.

Now, Atrium Health is working with a different drug, buprenorphine, that’s helping these patients. The drug has typically been used to treat opioid addiction, but experts have found that it’s an effective alternative to a steady pain medication regimen.

Ifeyinwa Osunkwo, MD, MPH, is the first physician at Atrium Health to make buprenorphine a successful treatment option for sickle cell patients. Dr. Ify, as she prefers to be called, is a hematology specialist with Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute (LCI). She spent months getting trained on buprenorphine from Stephen Wyatt, DO, medical director of addiction medicine at Atrium Health, and learning how it could benefit her patients. Buprenorphine helps ease withdrawal symptoms while also treating the pain.

“We have more than 55 patients that we've taken care of with this treatment,” Dr. Ify says. “We’ve gotten them off narcotics – they're out of the hospital, they're getting jobs, starting new careers. It's been amazing.”

While buprenorphine doesn’t work for all sickle cell patients, it’s helped enough to motivate Dr. Ify and her team to share their outcomes with the medical community.

“Atrium Health is leading the charge with this treatment,” says Padmaja Veeramreddy, MD, who works closely with Dr. Ify. “We’re writing papers on our findings, and other hospitals are in the beginning stages of looking at buprenorphine for sickle cell disease treatment. They’re looking at Atrium Health as their guide.”

At Last, a New Sickle Cell Medication

Almost two decades have passed since a new drug was approved for the treatment of sickle cell disease. At last, a new drug arrived last year: Endari.

This medication reduces the inflammation and stickiness that causes red blood cells to sickle. Patients who take Endari experience a 30 to 40 percent improvement in symptoms compared to those who don’t take the drug. The result is fewer hospitalizations and pain crises.

Dr. Ify was part of the investigative team that conducted the clinical trial that led to Endari’s approval. “I’m so glad it finally got approved. It has a lot of potential,” she says. “I’m just so glad that we have another option to give patients.”

Now, LCI is leading the charge on increasing sickle cell patients’ access to medication. All of Atrium Health’s sickle cell disease patients are enrolled in a Patient Management program, which gives them access to Specialty Pharmacy Services. This is a new integrated pharmacy model that works with sickle cell patients to inform them of the benefits of medications such as Endari, how they may help them, and to find discounts, coupons and payment options to make prescriptions more affordable.

A New Frontier in Sickle Cell Disease Care

The evolution in the treatment of sickle cell disease care has picked up speed in recent years. With new transplant options, a new medication, as well as a new use of an existing medication, providers are discovering new ways to manage patients’ symptoms. And as new therapies emerge, Atrium Health is working to make them more accessible and affordable for those who need them, allowing more people who live with sickle cell disease to live with a higher quality of life.

Patient Spotlight: Evelyn Wilson

When she was 18 years old, Evelyn Wilson went to the emergency room with crisis-level pain. It was then that she learned what was behind the discomfort: sickle cell disease. Though she’d had symptoms of sickle cell since she was 6, it took more than a decade for her to receive a diagnosis.

That day began a cycle of pain treatments, including visits to the emergency room and hospital stays that lasted as long as three weeks. Over time, her body built up a tolerance to the pain medications, requiring stronger doses and additional prescriptions to compensate.

After years of being seen by another hematologist, Evelyn was referred to Dr. Ify to help her cope with the side effects of her sickle cell disease treatments. Dr. Ify suggested trying buprenorphine for her pain.

The medication began a new chapter for Evelyn. She takes buprenorphine twice a day, and since she began taking it, she hasn’t had a pain crisis or been to the emergency room.

“The medication actually makes me feel up and lively, with no pain,” Evelyn says. “So, I'll put it this way: I smile more. My family enjoys me more. This is really helping.”


Continue reading this series on sickle cell disease:

Part 1: Game-Changing Advancements in Care
Part 2: Improving Long-Term Care for Sickle Cell Disease
Part 3: Innovative – and Proven – Therapies

Learn more about sickle cell disease care at Atrium Health. Call us at 980-442-4363 to begin a conversation about our program and how we can support your health.

Read More About Atrium Health's Sickle Cell Program and Download the eBook Today.