The Slow March Toward a Cure for Sickle Cell Disease

Pastel drawing of sickled hemoglobin cells by Roger Hayward, 1964

By Dr. Marcus Calkins

[Ed Note: This is the first of three posts examining the history of sickle cell treatment up to present day. It is authored by Marcus J. Calkins, Ph.D., “a proud OSU alumnus” (Chemical Engineering, B.S., 1999), who now works as a scientific communications service provider and educator in Taipei, Taiwan. In submitting this piece, Calkins emphasized that he has “taken inspiration from Linus Pauling’s research activities, teaching methods and moral character for many years.”]

In 2020, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared a Nobel Prize for their discovery and development of the CRISPR gene editor. One of the first clinical applications for CRISPR promises to be an ex vivo gene therapy for Sickle cell anemia. If it works, this medical technology will be a major breakthrough in biomedicine, representing the culmination of more than a century of research on Sickle cell disease that encompasses a wide range of topics.

Despite the lifetimes of work that have led to our current exciting position on the precipice of a cure for Sickle cell disease, the basic molecular features of the disease were defined seven decades ago by another Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling. The intervening 70 years of work have been required for scientists to learn how we might apply the foundational knowledge to actual patients in a real-life clinical setting. While the pace of progress may seem agonizingly slow to those outside biomedical research, the ground that has been covered is immense, and entire fields of biomedicine needed to be built and optimized before a truly feasible treatment technology could be invented.

Sickle Cell Disease (1910)

Sickle cell disease was first described over the period from 1910 to about 1924. During this time, a series of case reports detailed approximately 80 people of African descent, who had an odd morphology of red blood cells resembling a crescent or a sickle. In many cases, this sickle-like morphology was associated with a devastating condition involving severe anemia and early death. Furthermore, scientists learned that the red blood cell sickling could be exacerbated by depriving the blood of oxygen, either by adding carbon dioxide to cells in a dish or restricting blood flow in the patient. These clinical observations laid the foundation for basic scientists to postulate that the condition was related to hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells.

The first person to make this suggestion was Pauling. At some time in 1945, he was chatting with a colleague on the train from Denver to Chicago, when he learned about the difference in sickling between oxygenated and deoxygenated blood. According to the account of his colleague, Pauling was also informed that the sickled red blood cells show birefringence when viewed under a polarizing microscope, which would suggest an alignment of molecules within the cells.

However, by Pauling’s account of the conversation, his immediate guess that Sickle cell disease is caused by a defect in the hemoglobin protein complex was based entirely on the difference in the sickling properties of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood. Notably, Pauling later stated that the idea of Sickle cell disease being singularly caused by the hemoglobin molecule came to him in “two seconds,” but gathering evidence and refinement of the idea took at least three years.

In his public talks, Pauling often emphasized the fact that in the first years of the study, his students performed many experiments but could not identify any obvious biochemical differences between the hemoglobin molecules of patients and control individuals. From his repeated emphasis of this fact, one might speculate that the translation of a two-second idea to a three- or four-year demonstration would have been frustrating for such a quick-minded individual, though Pauling never said as much. Alternatively, he may have simply been emphasizing the challenges and slow, steady nature of rigorous scientific pursuit.

The Molecular Defect and a Potential Cure (1949)

In 1949, prior to the double helix model of DNA and before stem cells were described, the Pauling lab published a paper titled “Sickle Cell Anemia, a Molecular Disease.” In this work, Pauling and his students definitively showed that a slightly abnormal form of hemoglobin is found exclusively in patients with the cell sickling phenotype. Using a 30-foot-long Tiselius apparatus that they had constructed for electrophoresis, a small two-electron difference could be detected in the overall charge of hemoglobin molecules from Sickle cell patients and unaffected individuals. Meanwhile, carriers of the disease had a mixture of the two hemoglobin isoforms.

Importantly, Pauling’s group found that the defect in hemoglobin is not related with its ability to bind oxygen. Instead, it was later shown that the slight change in molecular charge affects the way hemoglobin proteins interact with each other, as would be predicted from the birefringence observation. This aberrant interaction causes the formation of long molecular scaffolds that change the shape of the red blood cell and lead to its dysfunction.

With this publication, Sickle cell disease became the first disorder to be associated with a single molecule. It was also the first with a known genetic basis. In his publication of the same year, J.V. Neel showed that Sickle cell disease follows an autosomal recessive inheritance pattern, meaning that each parent must contribute one copy of the mutated gene for a child to develop the disease. The cell sickling phenotype can occur to some degree in people who only carry one mutant allele, but only those with two copies experience the pernicious effects of the disease. This information, combined with Pauling’s study, established the essential basis for our understanding of Sickle cell disease and serves as a model for many other genetic diseases.

Surprisingly, James Watson (prior to his famed work on the structure of DNA) contributed a prescient idea to Sickle cell disease treatment, when he speculated that cells could be protected by expression of another form of hemoglobin, fetal hemoglobin. Watson made this prediction in 1948, just one year before Pauling’s powerhouse publication. His suspicion was an extension of reports that red blood cell sickling did not happen in the blood of infants who would later develop the condition as children and adults.

The stage was thus set for a Sickle cell disease cure. After the theoretical basis was determined, onlookers might have expected a cure for the disease to be found within a few years. However, extension of the ideas of Pauling and Watson has required incredible efforts by myriad scientists over the course of the next seven decades to create a potential new clinical reality.

One Response

  1. […] out this post on the Linus Pauling Blog page: Click here for Part […]

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