Alberta Children’s Hospital Leads Globally in Stem-Cell Transplant Against Sickle Cell Anemia

Malika Ammam, PhD avatar

by Malika Ammam, PhD |

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stem cell therapy, sickle cell anemia

Alberta Children’s Hospital, the world’s leading pediatric center for stem cell (SC) transplant, is welcoming more sickle cell (SC) anemia patients for transplant procedures.

SC anemia is a genetic disorder that alters the shape of the hemoglobin, a protein component of red blood cells responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Reduced oxygen levels eventually lead to liver and spleen damage, strokes, lung disease, and other complications.

People of African descent are genetically more predisposed to the disease than people of other heritage. Since the implementation of the SC transplant technology, Alberta Children’s Hospital has cured a seven girls and two boys of sickle cell.

The procedure entails destroying damaged blood cells and then replacing them with healthy grown transplanted stem cells taken from an immune match family member. During the process, SC patients are treated with drugs and low-dose total body irradiation to shut down their immune system and properly prepare them for the transplant procedure.

“We now have some excellent medications that can change the course of the illness for many patients,” said Mike Leaker, head of the hospital’s  Sickle Cell Clinic, in a press release. “But a drug is still a treatment, not a cure. For families, the word ‘cure’ is incredibly powerful.”

Patient Cardelia Fox, now 19, underwent the procedure two years ago and has since made a remarkable recovery.

“Before the stem cell transplant I felt like I was trapped,” Cardelia said. “Without this treatment, I would likely still be at Foothills getting blood transfusions every month.”

Cardelia received stem cells from her older sister Tamika, who was found to be a full immune match; an essential element for the procedure.

“When we learned I was a match there was never any question of whether or not I’d do it,” Tamika.

The number of patients seeking the procedure is constantly rising.

In 2008, Alberta Children’s Hospital saw 16 children requesting the operation. Recently, the number surpassed 80.

SC advances at Alberta Children’s Hospital’s global recognition, are largely attributed to community donations made to the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.

“To our knowledge, no one else is offering this protocol in children with sickle cell anemia,” said Dr. Greg Guilcher, a pediatric oncologist who leads the hospital’s sickle cell blood and marrow transplant program. “We’re getting phone calls and emails from around the world from interested parents and other doctors. We think we’re ahead of the curve in offering this curative therapy as a standard of care”.