Lynndrick Holmes, 29, of Mobile, says he feels “amazing” after taking part in a study at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD.
“Sickle cell is like a stalker -- you don’t know when he’s watching or what he’s planning,” says Holmes. “But now I feel amazing. I feel incredible.”
The treatment involves taking stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow and tweaking the gene that causes cells to become misshapen, says Julie Kanter, MD, director of the Adult Sickle Cell Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, one of the trial sites. The modified gene is then put back in using deactivated HIV. The trial is sponsored by biotech company bluebird bio and has test sites across the country.
Until now, the only way to treat someone was with a matched sibling transplant, Kanter says. But many patients do not have a full sibling, and even if they do, there is only a 15% chance of a match.
“This is a huge deal,” Kanter says. “We’re moving toward a more universal cure.”
But to call it a cure would be jumping the gun, she says. Holmes, who is being monitored every 3 months, must be sickle cell-free for 5 years before it can be classified as a cure.
“We hope it will be curative, but we can’t say that yet,” Kanter says. But, she says, “He’s having frequent follow-ups from the NIH, and it looks promising.”
In the U.S., most people who have sickle cell disease are of African ancestry. About one in 13 African American babies are born with the sickle cell trait, according to the NIH. And about one in every 365 African American babies is born with sickle cell disease.
There are also people who have sickle cell disease who come from Hispanic, Southern European, Middle Eastern, or Asian Indian backgrounds.
Holmes says the disease has been a burden to him his entire life. During an eighth-grade dance, he ended up in the emergency room because of a “sickle cell crisis,” and limitations from the disease have ended relationships.
A pain crisis happens when people with the disease can’t get blood to certain parts of their body. The pain can be severe and can last anywhere from several hours to several days or longer. Some may require hospitalization.
“It’s been painful, socially awkward, and just awful,” he says. “The trial has totally changed my life.”
Correction: An earlier version of the story said the gene therapy trial was sponsored by NIH. It is sponsored by bluebird bio.