Penn Researchers Identify Potential New Therapeutic Approach for Sickle Cell Disease

(Philadelphia, PA) – University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers have identified an embryonic protein present in all humans that, when produced in mice, dramatically reduces symptoms of sickle cell disease. The discovery raises the possibility of new treatment options for sickle cell patients, say co-authors J. Eric Russell, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, and Zhenning He, research specialist, Department of Medicine. The research appears in the April issue of Nature Medicine.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited, red-blood-cell disorder in humans characterized by chronic anemia, episodes of severe pain, and premature death. It is caused by an error in one of the genes that produces hemoglobin, an iron-protein component contained within the red blood cells that carry oxygen to body tissues. The defective gene directs production of abnormal hemoglobin, resulting in deformed (sickle-shaped) red blood cells that block small blood vessels. This results in pain, stroke, heart attacks, kidney failure, and premature death in adults and children.

Although there is no cure for sickle cell disease, treatments are available, including administration of the anti-cancer drug hydroxyurea, blood transfusions, and bone marrow transplantation. Hydroxyurea is widely used to reactivate the production of gamma globin, which substitutes for the defective component of hemoglobin, called beta globin. Although this approach does not cure the disease, it frequently results in a lessening of symptoms.

Russell and He used a novel approach to modify alpha globin, the other major component of hemoglobin. This could help patients who have responded poorly to conventional hydroxyurea treatment or who are unable to tolerate its side effects. Conceivably, therapies resulting from this study could be combined with standard treatments to further reduce disease severity.

The researchers genetically engineered mice with sickle cell disease to produce zeta globin, the embryonic form of the human alpha chain of hemoglobin. Unlike mice with sickle cell disease, the genetically altered mice had normal blood counts and were no longer anemic. In addition, the life span of their red blood cells was extended almost five-fold to normal levels. Sickled cells did not appear in the blood of the mice and kidney function normalized.

“Our work demonstrates a novel therapeutic approach that reverses the disease process in mice with sickle cell disease,” says Russell. “Clearly, there is much more work to be done before this approach can be tested in humans. Nevertheless, targeted reactivation of zeta globin, either alone or in combination with existing treatments, anticipates therapies in humans that are more flexible and potentially more effective than those that are currently available for this devastating condition.”

Sickle cell disease affects millions of people throughout the world. It is the most common inherited genetic disease in the United States, affecting approximately 72,000 people. The disease occurs in about one in every 500 African-American births and about one in every 1,000-1,400 Hispanic American births.

Additionally, approximately two million Americans, including 1 in 12 African Americans, have sickle cell trait. They do not suffer from the disease itself, but have the potential to pass the disease on to their children.

The research was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health. The authors have no competing financial interests in this research. Dr. Russell can be reached at 215-590-3880 or

For a printer friendly version of this release, click here.


PENN Medicine is a $2.5 billion enterprise dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and high-quality patient care. PENN Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System (created in 1993 as the nation’s first integrated academic health system).

Penn’s School of Medicine is ranked #2 in the nation for receipt of NIH research funds; and ranked #4 in the nation in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent ranking of top research-oriented medical schools. Supporting 1,400 fulltime faculty and 700 students, the School of Medicine is recognized worldwide for its superior education and training of the next generation of physician-scientists and leaders of academic medicine.

Penn Health System consists of four hospitals (including its flagship Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, consistently rated one of the nation’s “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report), a faculty practice plan, a primary-care provider network, three multispecialty satellite facilities, and home health care and hospice.

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $7.8 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report’s survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation’s top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $405 million awarded in the 2017 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report — Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital – the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, a leading provider of highly skilled and compassionate behavioral healthcare.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2017, Penn Medicine provided $500 million to benefit our community.

Share This Page: