Treating sickle cell disease

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St. Jude patient Kimberlin beat the odds of her disease, thanks to help from St. Jude.

In 1982, when doctors found that 8-year-old Kimberlin suffered from acute myeloid leukemia (AML), her family was devastated. It didn’t seem fair. The young girl already suffered from sickle cell disease, and for most of her life, had experienced the intense pain and complications associated with the disease, which at the time had no known cure. 

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder affecting red blood cells that can cause anemia, pain, organ damage and even death. The diagnosis of AML complicated matters even further. Kimberlin’s doctors feared she had only six months to live, and referred her to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for treatment.

At St. Jude, Kimberlin’s treatment for AML included chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant. Her younger brother, Shongo, was her bone marrow donor. What happened next shocked the medical community.

Not only did Kimberlin’s cancer go into remission, but her sickle cell anemia was cured, paving the way for great strides to be made in the treatment of sickle cell disease.

St. Jude developed a nationally recognized program to help teenagers with sickle cell disease learn how to continue managing their disease as they grow up so their quality of care doesn’t suffer during the transition to adulthood and non-pediatric care providers. In 2011, we led a national study that showed that a drug used to treat adult sickle cell patients is safe and effective for use in infants and toddlers. The drug, hydroxyurea, cut down on hospitalization and eased other symptoms of the disease in very young patients.

Today, Kimberlin is married and the mother of three children. “Everybody at St. Jude, the doctors and the nurses, have their hearts in the right place,” said Kimberlin. “They really care about the children. They are determined to find cures and save lives.” St. Jude freely shares the breakthroughs it makes, and every child saved at St. Jude means doctors and scientists worldwide can use that knowledge to save thousands more children.