Blog Global Health Center

Triumphs and progress for sickle cell disease research

Written by Emmanuella Alawode, BA, MD candidate, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and alumna, 2023 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Alawode and her abstract at the 2023 ASH Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA

I was honored to present my research abstract titled, “The Incidence of Maternal and Perinatal Morbidity in Sickle Cell Disease and Sickle Cell Trait Patients during Pregnancy” at the esteemed 65th American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting and Exposition. This project reflects my unwavering passion for improving maternal-infant health with a focus on addressing health disparities.

The timing of my presentation at this year’s ASH conference is particularly significant as it coincided with the FDA’s approval of the first set of gene therapies, Vertex Pharmaceuticals’
Casgevy and Bluebird Bio’s Lyfgenia, for sickle cell disease (SCD). This momentous victory represents a groundbreaking advancement for individuals affected by SCD, adding even greater relevance to my research topic. The intersection of my work with the emergence of these gene therapies underscores the potential impact on maternal and perinatal outcomes, providing a timely and crucial perspective.

The annual meeting provided me a valuable platform to engage in scientific dialogue,
learn about the latest medical advancements, and connect with fellow researchers and health care professionals. A highlight of my experience was a lecture on systemic racism in hematology, which shed light on the health care system’s challenges in preventing
implicit bias and the need for additional measures in professional training. The lectures on diverse hematologic conditions and treatments deepened and reinforced the knowledge I gained as a RADIANCE scholar and medical student. The exhibit hall offered opportunities to interact with pharmaceutical companies, where I gained insights into Miltenyi Biotec’s automated cell processing platform (CliniMACS Prodigy) for CAR T cell therapy, Spark
Therapeutics’ gene therapy for hemophilia using an adeno-associated viral vector (AAV), and
Vertex Pharmaceuticals’s gene therapy, Casgevy, for SCD. Casgevy uses CRISPR/Cas9
technology to increase fetal hemoglobin and decrease sickle hemoglobin in CD34+
hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells.

As a first-time conference attendee, I was impressed by its meticulous planning and execution. I express my gratitude to God for this incredible opportunity to present my research among some of the brightest minds in the field of hematology/oncology. I appreciate my family,
medical school, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and the National Heart,
Lung, and Blood Institute for supporting my academic endeavors. I also thank my research mentor, Anuj Shrestha, MD, for his guidance and encouragement in pursuing a project aligned with my interests in maternal-infant health and SCD. Appreciation also goes to my RADIANCE mentor, Sharon Cresci, MD, for nurturing my passion for clinical research. The ASH Annual Meeting has reinforced my commitment to making impactful contributions to medicine, clinical research, and public health.