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NHLBI commits to a sickle cell cure


Researchers with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) are ramping up efforts for a cure for sickle cell disease (SCD).

A cluster of sickle cell anemia blood cells. Dr_Microbe/Thinkstock

“We have new exigency and intensity of effort to enable curative strategies for sickle cell disease to move forward,” said W. Keith Hoots, MD, the director of the division of blood diseases at NHLBI.

The key word in the cure effort is partnership – whether it’s among federal agencies, with public and private organizations, or with patients and families.

“Developmental strategies are built on partnerships to enhance care and accelerate cure for sickle cell disease in the U.S. and worldwide,” Dr. Hoots said at the 12th annual symposium of the Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research in Washington.

The reach also extends internationally. Supporting research in sub-Saharan Africa has promised to accelerate the clinical trial process by bringing advanced research capabilities to a region with a very high per capita rate of SCD. While in the United States, infrastructure is being built for a future research network, with the goal of developing a secure database of shared elements that harmonize and unite existing data.

Future cohort studies, enhanced newborn screening, and higher uptake of hydroxyurea will all be supported as part of this effort, Dr. Hoots said.

In the United States, patients can participate in a meaningful way as citizen-scientists, as new technology makes it possible to crowdsource high-quality data collection securely.

And including both community organizations and primary care providers in the “circle of partners” means not only that advances are brought out to patients expeditiously but also that the voices of patients and families have a clear channel back to researchers and policy makers through formal patient engagement and lay participation at all levels, Dr. Hoots said.

“The number of presently interested partners may surprise you,” Dr. Hoots said.

This multifaceted approach allows for “multiple shots on goal, with the acceptance that there could potentially be some failures,” Dr. Hoots said. Keeping all players better connected, though, should allow efforts to be redirected when needed, with a particular focus on accelerating work toward genetic therapies for SCD.

Perhaps the flagship effort is the Cure Sickle Cell Disease Initiative, a new partnership focused on accelerating cure-focused SCD research by filling in gaps left in the network of other funding strategies.

NHLBI named Edward J. Benz Jr., MD, the president and CEO emeritus of Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, as the executive director and the Emmes Corporation, a contract research organization with expertise in clinical trials, as the coordinating center.

Traveling the last mile

New strategies also need to focus on how to boost uptake of such currently available best practices in SCD treatment as hydroxyurea use. To that end, Dr. Hoots said, NHLBI is drawing on implementation science, a discipline that, in a medical setting, can help solve such “last-mile” problems as bringing best practices in SCD treatment to patients.

In clinical practice, this might look like solving transportation issues for family members so that appointments aren’t missed and hydroxyurea prescriptions are filled. For researchers, implementation science can help with thorny details of participant recruitment and retention.

Established in 2016, the Sickle Cell Disease Implementation Consortium comprises nine U.S. research centers and NHLBI, which are each seeking to recruit at least 300 participants with SCD, aged 15-45 years, to study effective identification of barriers to care, and the best means to overcome them.

However, Dr. Hoots said, NHLBI also will continue funding SCD research through the traditional investigator-initiated application process, in conjunction with “a suite of specialized programs that can support translational and clinical research in SCD.”

Some of the features rolling out within the Cure SCD Initiative are included in direct response to stakeholder feedback about pressing needs and top priorities. For example, an economic case needed to be made in order for insurance companies, public and private alike, to reimburse for genetic SCD treatments. This requires an understanding of the lifetime cost burden of SCD, as well as determining what the long-term follow-up of costs of gene therapy will be.

Patients, family members and those providing primary care for SCD patients all agreed that clinical trials should have endpoints that reflect meaningful outcomes for patients and should be designed with the input of both patients and providers.

When queried, sickle cell disease researchers expressed a need to identify common data elements in SCD research, and wished for a secure yet accessible national data warehouse for data from gene and cell therapy trials.

At present, there are three clinical trials of curative stem cell approaches for SCD registered with the Blood and Marrow Transplant Clinical Trials Network and several more early phase clinical trials underway, Dr. Hoots said. A primary focus is the use of autologous cells for genomic editing, gene therapy, and erythroid-specific vectors.

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