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At Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute (LCI), our innovative sickle cell program uses the latest therapies and approaches to reduce pain, limit side effects and help improve your quality of life.

What is sickle cell disease?

In sickle cell disease, red blood cells are C-shaped (like a sickle) instead of round. This can make cells stick together, block blood flow, and can cause pain, stroke, infections and organ failure.

Sickle cells also break down faster than healthy cells, reducing oxygen in the blood and causing sickle cell anemia.

Managing and treating sickle cell disease

We’ll work with you to create a care plan that’s right for you, using the latest treatments to help you live a healthier, happier life.

Blood transfusions

Patients with sickle cell anemia often need transfusions that add new, healthy cells to their blood. We use an innovative approach, called exchange transfusions, that infuses your body with healthy blood cells while also removing sickle cells. This keeps sickle cells to a minimum and reduces stroke risk.

Medications for pain management

We offer advanced medications that keep blood flowing and reduce pain. For example, sickle cell researchers at LCI were part of a team of scientists who developed the first new sickle cell treatment in decades, l-glutamine oral powder. Most patients who take this medication experience a 30% to 40% improvement in symptoms and spend less time in the hospital.

Gene therapy

For some patients, gene therapy can decrease or even eliminate complications from sickle cell disease. Right now, we offer gene therapy for patients with sickle cell who are 18 to 45 years old.

This treatment uses autologous (self-donated) stem cells from the patient, which means we can do it without a family or unrelated donor. The patient’s stem cells are collected and sent to a lab for gene editing, which allows us to correct the mutation that causes sickle cell and create healthy stem cells. Then, after undergoing a small amount of chemotherapy, the new, healthy stem cells are infused into the patient’s bloodstream.

Compared to bone marrow transplants, gene therapy is typically lower-risk and offers a faster recovery. And while more research needs to be done, there’s hope that gene therapy could be a cure for sickle cell disease.

Bone marrow transplants

Bone marrow transplants (also called blood and marrow transplants or stem cell transplants) can cure some sickle cell patients by replacing diseased cells with healthy cells. Traditionally, only about 18% of patients were eligible for transplants because they needed to be matched with donors who have the exact same proteins in their blood. LCI is one of the first centers investigating an alternative approach called haploidentical bone marrow transplants, or half-matched transplants.

With this new approach, you only need a donor who has about half of the same proteins. This means many more patients could have access to transplant cures.

Advancing sickle cell care

Through research, we’re continually uncovering new and better ways to deliver the care you need. And with these leading-edge projects, we’re helping to improve the lives of people with sickle cell disease everywhere.

Improving the transition to adult care

Many kids with sickle cell stop getting treatment when they get too old for pediatric programs. Our team recently received a generous grant to develop ways to make sure teens and young adults continue to get the care they need.

Reducing opioid dependence

Doctors often prescribe narcotic medications to help with sickle cell pain, but these can be addictive. Our team is among the first to use a different medication, called buprenorphine, that treats sickle cell pain with fewer risks than opioids. This has helped many patients stay out of the hospital and get back to their everyday lives.

Managing sickle cell with an app

We’re developing an app to help patients with sickle cell disease track their daily pain, water intake and medications. This helps patients and their doctors understand what leads to complications, so we can find ways to prevent them.

Living with sickle cell disease

Living with an invisible illness – one that has signs and symptoms that aren’t visible to others, like sickle cell disease – can lead to feelings of hopelessness. That’s why we’re dedicated to helping people who have sickle cell get the care and support they need to live their best lives.

Watch the videos below to hear from a few members of our care team and real-life patients.

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