Dr. Kim Mulvihill reportingSickle cell anemia has no cure. But there is hope. A discovery could lead to better ways to treat the inherited blood disease.
Lola and Sola Odesina share more than just being sisters.
Sola Odesina/ Has Sickle Cell Anemia: "It was just really difficult living with it, growing up with it. But I've become accustomed to it now."
Both were born with sickle cell disease.
Lola Odesina/ Has Sickle Cell Anemia: "You're always thinking, is this going to be okay? Am I going to be alright?"
With sickle cell disease, red blood cells change from round to sickle shapes. They clump together and block blood flow in capillaries. A lack of oxygen leads to excruciating pain.
Lola: "It's extreme pain. It's not something that you really want to deal with. It's a continuous throbbing pain. It is not a pain that goes away. It can last for days and weeks. It's terrible."
What's worse, these blockages damage tissues and vital organs. Damage to the vessels in the lungs can lead to pulmonary hypertension, heart failure and early death.
Dr. Claudia Morris: "So, it's a very concerning complication and one that deserves a lot of attention to see if we can actually turn this thing around for these patients."
Now a discovery about sickle cell anemia could lead to innovative ways to fight this disease, and possibly many others. The key finding centers around what happens when a red blood cell breaks apart.
It's a process called hemolysis - a chronic problem with sickle cell disease. As a red cell breaks apart, it lets loose an enzyme that eats up an important substance in the body. The substance is an amino acid calledarginine.
Dr. Claudia Morris is an emergency room physician and researcher at Children's Hospital Oakland. She found patients who had low levels of arginine had nearly a four-fold greater risk of dying from pulmonary hypertension.
Dr. Morris: "I think what this opens the door for is potential new therapies that are going to increase your arginine availability in the body. So dietary supplements are one alternative."
Dr. Morris cautions patients not to rush out and buy supplements, but to get involved in a study under a doctor's care.
The Odesina sisters are thrilled research is underway.
Sola: "I think it's great, I really do. It's showing that a lot of people do care. Any new discoveries that look promising are good news in our book!"
Arginine is found in many dietary sources including meat and nuts.
While African Americans are most at risk for sickle cell disease, others also carry the gene, including those from Spanish, Greek, Middle Eastern or Indian descent.