Montgomery woman hopeful after UAB announces clinical trial to cure sickle cell

Updated: Mar. 25, 2019 at 9:15 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A disease that has claimed millions of lives could be a thing of the past. That’s the hope of those leading a new trial to find a cure for sickle cell anemia.

In the next couple of months a clinical trial that could result in a universal cure for the disease will be coming to UAB.

This would give hope to Montgomery resident Tahara Mathews.

“No one wants to see loved ones go through this. The faster it can come, the better,” said Mathews.

The 23-year-old wife and mother has lived with sickle cell. The debilitating inherited disease turns some of her red blood cells into sickle shapes which can clog arteries, causing intense pain.

“It is like sudden onset of pain, legs, arms, chest or my back,” said Mathews.

Things like weather and travel can trigger a crisis. Mathews says one of the worst came two years ago on the way home from South Carolina after her brother’s military graduation.

“My platelets count was over a million," she said. “I had to be put on bed rest because I was at stroke range. It was serious and very scary.”

Last year Mathews says she did have a mini stroke.

“Thank God there was no permanent damage. I am blessed,” said Mathews.

Knowing just 100 miles up the road in Birmingham there could be a cure is great news for Mathews.

“To be able to have hope that it is actually coming, that is very exciting," said Mathews.

WBRC spoke with Dr. Julie Kanter, Director of UAB’s Adult Sickle Cell program. She says the medical center has just been approved to take part in a clinical trial that started at the National Institutes of Health about five years ago.

“We’ve known about this disease for a hundred years. We only have two FDA approved drugs. That’s ridiculous," said Dr. Julie Kanter, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

This gene therapy approach removes a patient’s stem cells, adds a corrective gene to keep the patient’s red blood cells from forming a dangerous sickle shape, and returning the cells using a form of the AIDS virus whose harmful elements have been removed.

“We take the HIV envelope and we take out the letter that actually encodes for the bad stuff, the virus, but we leave the envelope that allows it to get into cells. We put in what I call a new letter, a letter that spells the right kind of hemoglobin. So now it’s in an envelope and it delivers it into the stem cells of someone with sickle cell disease. Then it produces that normal hemoglobin," said Dr. Kanter.

If given the opportunity to take part in the clinical trial Mathews says she would do it.

“Just to be able to live a normal life and be a regular wife and mom. I would absolutely do it,” said Mathews.

In the meantime Mathews says she is working to plan a Sickle Cell Walk here in Montgomery.

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