Potential Treatment Could 'Sweeten' Life for Sickle Cell Patients
March 17, 2000 (Los Angeles) -- Aspartame, the artificial sweetener in
NutraSweet and other products, might limit the mechanism behind sickle cell
disease. Sickle cell is caused by the flattening and curling of red blood cells
(RBCs), which leads to extreme pain, kidney damage, and risk of stroke. Early
studies of aspartame for sickle cell disease were reported today at the annual
meeting of the American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
"These preliminary results are intriguing and deserve further
study," says Cage Johnson, MD, who reviewed the research for WebMD. Johnson
is professor of medicine and director of the USC Comprehensive Sickle Cell
Center at the University of Southern California's University Hospital in Los
Sickle cell disease, also known as sickle cell anemia, is a genetic
condition that leads to bending and flattening of the RBCs, which then form the
shape of a sickle. When this occurs, the RBCs are destroyed and can no longer
carry oxygen to the various parts of the body. In addition, the RBCs tend to
stick together, and this can lead to the formation of blood clots, causing
heart attacks and strokes. Both the sticking together and the bending of the
RBCs lead to severe pain, usually in the legs, arms, back, and chest due to the
clots and lack of oxygen.
Carl V. Manion, MD, and colleagues at the Oklahoma Medical Research
Foundation in Oklahoma City reported at the meeting that aspartame reduced RBC
sickling in all patients with the most common form of sickle cell disease.
Manion tells WebMD that the protective effect occurred at all three aspartame
doses tested but was most impressive at the highest dose. For a patient
weighing 100 pounds, this meant swallowing 13 aspartame tablets with about
one-quarter cup of water.
Aspartame apparently slides between the "sticky" hemoglobins and
prevents them from sticking together, Manion tells WebMD.
Little is known about how or whether aspartame actually goes into the RBCs.
"Lots of people don't believe that aspartame [gets in], so they doubt the
effect. I think that RBCs are probably naive and, like our sense of taste,
cannot distinguish aspartame from sugar," Manion says, adding that RBCs
only break down sugar.
Johnson tells WebMD that aspartame joins two other potential treatments now
in human studies for sickle cell disease: the natural amino acid glutamine and
the sugar fructose diphosphate. All three aim to stabilize the RBCs and prevent
Johnson says, "The sickling is only one component of sickle cell
disease, and preventing it may not solve all problems."
Aspartame is not yet ready for use as a sickle cell treatment, or even for
large human studies, but the data from Manion's pilot studies have made it a
sweet contender. The Oklahoma researchers plan to continue this line of
research with a study in which sickle cell patients will take aspartame daily
for one week, and their RBCs will be studied before and after the week of
- People with sickle cell disease have red blood cells that can become
distorted and sticky, preventing them from moving through the body properly.
Researchers report the common artificial sweetener aspartame, which is in
NutraSweet, might stop the red blood cells from sticking together.
- The researchers found the best results came when giving a dose of aspartame
equivalent to 13 tablets for a 100 pound patient.
- An observer says the results are intriguing, but more study is needed
because not all doctors are convinced of aspartame's effect. Also, there are
other facets to sickle cell disease that cannot be solved by aspartame.