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    Hydroxyurea Effective With Few Side Effects in the Sickest Sickle Cell Patients

    WebMD Health News

    Dec. 9, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Hydroxyurea, a drug approved for use in sickle cell anemia, improves the function of red blood cells for up to six to seven years with few negative side effects, according to a study presented at the 41st Annual Meeting of the American Society of Hematology in New Orleans. The drug may reduce death rates in adults with moderate to severe sickle cell anemia. Hydroxyurea is the only known therapy to prevent sickle cell crisis and decrease the pain attacks and pneumonialike episodes.

    "The main conclusion is that there is no unexpected toxicity of the hydroxyurea," lead author Martin H. Steinberg, MD, tells WebMD. "We haven't yet seen patients develop cancer or leukemia or have unexpected side effects. The second [conclusion] is that the data suggest ... that these patients who take hydroxyurea have reduced mortality compared to the patients who didn't take the drug. We're excited and encouraged by the news." Steinberg is associate chief of staff of research at the VA Medical Center and professor of medicine at the University of Mississippi, both in Jackson.

    Sickle cell anemia is an inherited disorder of red blood cells that most often affects blacks. It causes red blood cells to be shaped abnormally, like a sickle. In this sickle shape, the red blood cells are fragile, are unable to carry oxygen, and can clog vessels. When the vessels become blocked, they cause severe pain and tissue damage. These episodes are called pain crises or vaso-occlusive events. Traditionally, pain crises are treated with blood transfusions, vigorous hydration, and pain medications.

    There is no cure for sickle cell anemia but there are many new therapies and medications. Hydroxyurea is one drug that has been effective in reducing the frequency of pain crises and the need for blood transfusions in adults with sickle cell anemia.

    In this study, almost 300 adults with moderate to severely symptomatic sickle cell anemia were randomly selected to receive treatment with maximum doses of hydroxyurea or placebo. After treatment was stopped, patients were followed for six to seven years. Of the patients who received hydroxyurea, there was improvement of the red blood cells ability to carry oxygen and less breakage of the cells. In the same group, about 14% died, whereas about 20% of those on placebo died. The most common cause of death was pulmonary disease. There was no significant increase risk of death for users of hydroxyurea.

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