Public Release: 

UT Southwestern expert co-chairs national team to develop first comprehensive guidelines for management of sickle cell disease

UT Southwestern Medical Center


IMAGE: Shirley Miller with Dr. George Buchanan, Professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, holder of the Children's Cancer Fund Distinguished Chair in Pediatric Oncology & Hematology. view more

Credit: UT Southwestern

DALLAS - September 9, 2014- The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has released the first comprehensive, evidence-based guidelines for management of sickle cell disease from birth to end of life, based on recommendations developed by a nationwide team of experts co-chaired by a UT Southwestern Medical Center hematologist.

Appearing today in JAMA, the guidelines are intended for general use by pediatricians, physicians treating adults, hematologists, emergency room personnel, hospitalists, and other health care providers. The new management guidelines consist of more than 500 specific directions for physicians who are caring for patients with sickle cell disease.

"The aim is to improve the care of all people with sickle cell disease, young and old, and to raise awareness among the entire medical profession regarding the need for better care and more research, so that someday everyone with sickle cell disease can receive the best possible care and lead a normal and productive life," said Dr. George Buchanan, Professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine.

Although currently most patients are diagnosed at birth and survive until adulthood, many sickle cell disease patients die in their 30s and 40s of acute complications or chronic organ damage. Dr. Buchanan and the team of expert panelists want to alter that statistic through improved and comprehensive treatment.

One survivor who beat those numbers is 58-year-old Shirley Miller, who worked at UT Southwestern with Dr. Buchanan from 2002 to 2010 as a program manager, patient advocate, and outreach coordinator.

"I lived my life in fear because I thought age 30 was it. I wasted a lot of time wondering how the end would happen. My parents never told me my life expectancy; I went to the library and looked it up," said Ms. Miller, who is now helping to launch a comprehensive sickle cell adult program in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Diagnosed at age three, and the only one of five siblings with the disease, she grew up without physical education classes and did not participate in sports. She made friends slowly and was embarrassed when others went through puberty before her. She credits her parents with helping her believe she could make it, and she credits the care she later received as an adult at UT Southwestern.

"Comprehensive care is the key to successful management of sickle cell disease, known as sickle cell disease. Currently, there are not enough physicians who specialize in the care of adults with sickle cell disease, which means that many are seen by primary care physicians or other specialists," said Ms. Miller. "These guidelines will provide physicians with a tool for basic understanding of the disease etiology and possible complications to look for when managing a patient. I attribute my survival to the comprehensive care that I received from this teaching and research university, which is on the cutting edge of so many developments. The knowledge and expertise available here have made all the difference."

The expert panel for the new guidelines is a 12-member team, all known for their experience in diagnosing and treating people with sickle cell disease. Panel members included two pediatric hematologists, four adult hematologists, an obstetrician, a psychiatrist, an emergency department nurse, two blood transfusion specialists, and one family physician. These experts were supported by a large staff of NHLBI leaders and other personnel, including experts in finding and analyzing the available scientific evidence that could help improve the lives of people with sickle cell disease.

Sickle cell disease is the world's most common serious condition due to a single gene mutation. An estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people in the U.S. have sickle cell disease. Of these, about 1,000 receive care annually at UT Southwestern. Dr. Buchanan has led the institutional pediatric and research sickle cell disease programs for 37 years.

More than 2 million Americans carry the sickle cell trait.

"African-Americans are far more likely than Caucasians to have the sickle cell trait, which is not a disease but a carrier state. One has to receive a copy of the abnormal gene from both parents to have the disease," said Dr. Buchanan, who holds the Children's Cancer Fund Distinguished Chair in Pediatric Oncology & Hematology.

"Every state now has mandatory newborn screening for the disease," said Dr. Buchanan, Director of the Barrett Family Center for Pediatric Oncology at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Buchanan was instrumental in ensuring that Texas became the third state to adopt newborn screening in 1983. Approximately 150 infants with sickle cell disease are diagnosed in Texas each year. Nearly one third of them receive their care at Children's Medical Center in Dallas.

When sickle cell disease progresses, it can delay puberty and cause acute and chronic complications, including debilitating pain, life-threatening infections, damage to vital organs, and stroke. Stem cell transplants offer a potential cure; however, the high cost, lack of suitable donors (ideally the donor is a sibling), and the risk of complications make these transplants relatively infrequent. The newly published comprehensive guidelines recommend better pain control; prevention and treatment of acute and chronic complications; general health maintenance; judicious use of blood transfusions; and teaching patients to manage their disease through behavioral changes.

The committee also strongly advocates for prescribing hydroxyurea, an oral medication taken once daily that has become the standard of care. Hydroxyurea reduces the impact of the disease by improving the anemia, and reducing the risk of pain events and acute chest syndrome. It can also decrease the need for transfusions and hospital admissions.

"These national guidelines are directed not just to hematologists but to all medical practitioners who might encounter sickle cell disease patients, to inform them about hydroxyurea and how to best offer general medical care to them," Dr. Buchanan said. "We have a lot of work to do to educate physicians."


September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month, and the guidelines will be discussed and disseminated at professional conferences, as well as being available on the NHLBI website and in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association.

According to NHLBI, sickle cell anemia is the most common form of sickle cell disease, a serious disorder in which the body makes sickle-shaped red blood cells. "Sickle-shaped" means that the red blood cells are shaped like a crescent. Normal red blood cells are disc-shaped and look like doughnuts without holes in the center, moving easily through blood vessels. Red blood cells contain an iron-rich protein called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Sickle cells contain abnormal hemoglobin called sickle hemoglobin or hemoglobin S. They tend to block blood flow in the blood vessels of the limbs and organs, causing pain, organ damage, and increased risk for infection. In the U.S., the disease occurs in about one out of every 500 African-American births and in more than one out of every 36,000 Hispanic-American births.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution's faculty includes many distinguished members, including six who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. Numbering more than 2,700, the faculty is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in 40 specialties to nearly 91,000 hospitalized patients and oversee more than 2 million outpatient visits a year.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.