A Cure for Sickle Cell Disease Is Coming. Will Patients Accept It?
If any malady proves the fragile grace of the human genome, it is sickle cell disease.
If experimental treatments receive regulatory approval, it would be a watershed breakthrough for tens of thousands of Americans.
It occurs because of a single "misspelled" letter of DNA, causing red blood cells to run low on oxygen and transforming the hemoglobin in each cell into a stiff rod. Normally round cells become rigid crescents that hamper the flow of blood throughout the body, like leaves clumping in a drain.
Strokes in toddlers are merely the beginning of the circulatory calamities this disease may inflict. Most sickled cells cannot carry oxygen through the body, causing anemia as well as excruciating chronic pain. Older patients are at risk of kidney failure, heart disease and all the other collateral damage caused by poor circulation. Few live beyond middle age.
The only way to cure it has been through a bone marrow transplant from a donor, which requires not only a closely matching volunteer, but bouts of chemotherapy to allow new stem cells to take root, as well as rounds of immunosuppressive drugs that may last for years.
Recent advances in genomic medicine may soon alter the disease's outlook, although many obstacles remain.
In one treatment under development, patient's skin cells are converted into stem cells, allowing them to be inserted into the bone marrow without the need for a donor. Another treatment known as gene therapy involves replacing the aberrant gene in the patient's body with new genetic material.
Although both remain in clinical trials -- and also require at least chemotherapy -- they have shown promise. Matthew Hsieh, a hematologist and staff scientist with the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute in Maryland, has performed about 10 gene therapy procedures over the past three years as part of a clinical trial. Ongoing tweaks in the procedure have led to the blood in more recent patients showing sickle cell trait -- not a perfect outcome, but one that leaves patients with far fewer symptoms than if they have the full-blown disease.
If one or both treatments receive regulatory approval, it would be a watershed breakthrough for the tens of thousands of Americans who suffer from the disease.
Yet it is entirely possible many patients may decline the cure.
A Painful History
The vast majority of sickle cell sufferers in the U.S. -- well beyond 90 percent -- are African-American, a population with a historically uneasy relationship toward healthcare.
"There is a lot of data on distrust between African-Americans and American medical institutions," says J. Corey Williams, a psychiatrist with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who has written extensively on racial disparities in healthcare. "It comes from a long legacy of feeling victimized by medicine."
"What you hear from many patients is 'I am not going to be your guinea pig, and I am not going to be experimented on.'"
As a result, Williams is among several clinicians interviewed for this story who believe a cure for sickle cell disease would be embraced reluctantly.
"What you hear from many patients is 'I am not going to be your guinea pig, and I am not going to be experimented on.' And so the history of African-Americans and research will manifest as we develop gene therapies for [these] patients," says Christopher L. Edwards, a clinical psychologist and researcher with the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
Fear among African-Americans of becoming guinea pigs is well-founded. The first c-sections and fistula repairs occurring in North America were performed on enslaved women -- all without consent and virtually none with anesthesia.
Modern 20th century medicine led to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. Researchers withheld treatment from some 400 African-American men from the 1930s well into the 1970s to observe how they reacted to the disease -- even though curative antibiotics had been around for decades. Only news reports ended the experiment.
The long-standing distrust of American healthcare in the African-American community is also baked into the care provided to sickle cell patients. Despite affecting one in 365 African-Americans, there is no disease registry to assist clinical trials, according to Mary Hulihan, a blood disorders epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Edwards says many sufferers are suspicious of being monitored.
Meanwhile, only two drugs are available to alleviate the worst symptoms. The first one, hydroxyurea, received FDA approval only in 1998 -- nearly 90 years after the disease was first diagnosed. Moreover, Edwards says that some sufferers shy away from using hydroxyurea because it is also used to treat cancer. It's part of what he calls the "myth and folklore" in the African-American community about sickle cell disease.
Economics plays a role as well in the often-fragmented care such patients receive. According to CDC data, many patients rely extensively on public insurance programs such as Medicaid, whose coverage varies from state to state.
A Tough Transition
Edwards notes that sickle cell sufferers usually receive good care when they're children because of support provided by family members. But that often breaks down in adulthood. According to CDC data, an adult sickle cell patient visits a hospital emergency room three times as often as a child patient.
The consensus is that the path to a medical cure for sickle cell will first need to be smoothed over with a talk cure.
Modupe Idowu, a hematologist with the University of Texas Health system, estimates that there are perhaps a dozen comprehensive care centers for the estimated 100,000 sickle cell patients in the U.S., including the one she operates in Houston. That means a significant proportion of those afflicted are on their own to procure care.
And since many patients are on Medicaid, "a lot of hematologists that train to take care of blood disorders, many are not interested in treating [sickle cell disease] because the reimbursement for providers is not great," Idowu says.
Hsieh acknowledges that many of his patients can be suspicious about the care they are receiving. Frustration with fragmented care is usually the biggest driver, he adds.
Meanwhile, the skepticism that patients have about the treatments they seek is often reciprocated by their caregivers.
"The patients have experiences with medication and know what works at a very young age (for their pain)," Edwards says. Such expertise demonstrated by an African-American patient often leads to them being labeled as narcotics seekers.
The Correct Path
This all begs the question of how to deploy a cure. Idowu, who regularly holds town hall-style meetings with Houston-area patients, often must allay anxieties. For example, the gene therapy approach uses a harmless virus to transport new genetic material into cells. That virus happens to be a benign version of HIV, and convincing patients they won't be infected with HIV is a fraught issue.
The consensus is that the path to a medical cure for sickle cell will first need to be smoothed over with a talk cure.
Idowu tries to hammer home the fact that patients are afforded vastly more protections than in the past. "There are a lot of committees and investigational review boards that keep track of clinical trials; things just don't happen anymore as they did in the past," she says. She also believes it helps if more providers of color communicate to patients.
Hsieh is very straightforward with his patients. He informs them about the HIV vector but assures them no one has ever tested positive for the virus as a result of its use.
Edwards notes that since many patients suffer psychosocial trauma as a result of their chronic pain, there already is some counseling infrastructure in place to help them cope. He believes such resources will have to be stretched further as a cure looms closer.
In the absence of formal mental health services, straight talk may be the best way to overcome wariness.
"If patients have misgivings, we try our best to address them, and let them know at the end of the day it is their decision to make," Hsieh says. "And even the patients who have gone through the gene therapy and it didn't work well -- they're still glad they took the chance."
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.