Sickle cell disease and the March of Dimes

sickle cell screening, 1972Sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder in which round red blood cells take on a characteristic abnormal, curved “sickle” shape. African-Americans and others from tropical sub-Saharan Africa are most susceptible to this disorder, which can cause intense pain, high blood pressure, stroke, damage to vital organs, and the risk of serious infection. March of Dimes research involvement into the causes and prevention of sickle cell disease dates back to the polio era, when the chemist Linus Pauling discovered that the disease results from an abnormality in molecules of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Dr. Pauling’s finding that sickle hemoglobin differs in a measurable way from normal hemoglobin introduced the idea that heritable changes in the structure of a molecule could lead to improper function and result in disease. Dr. Pauling received one of the earliest basic research grants from the March of Dimes, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954. His work laid thegroundwork for techniques used in newborn screening and the diagnosis of sickle cell disease today.

After the March of Dimes changed its mission to birth defects prevention in 1958, sickle cell disease again came to the forefront of concern as a significant, but treatable, genetic disorder. The Foundation supported several lines of research: one was a medication that prevents red blood cells from “sickling;” another was giving daily antibiotics to affected infants and toddlers to prevent life-threatening bacterial infections; a third was bone marrow transplantation, used to cure other genetic blood disorders as well as severe sickle cell disease. The Foundation helped to establish one of the first pediatric clinics in the U.S. to care for infants and children with sickle cell disease at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City in the late 1970s. This center provided medical services, social and psychological support, genetic counseling and education needed by children with sickle cell disease as well as their families and communities. March of Dimes researchers investigated the effectiveness of innovative drug treatments and a multi-disciplinary team approach to caring for infants and children affected by the disease.

For over 50 years the March of Dimes has focused on treatment of sickle cell disease in its quest to prevent all birth defects. In 1982, March of Dimes grants led to the development of a safe and accurate prenatal test for the disease, and even today our grants support cutting-edge medical research. We hope to understand the molecular pathways of cellular development, to determine the risk factors inherent in the disease to prevent other infections, and to explore innovative gene therapies to eliminate the risks of leukemia in those affected by the disease. These are just a sampling of some of the ways we strive for “stronger, healthier babies” in our 75th anniversary year.


  • comment-avatar
    Debbie March 6, 2013

    Who wrote this article? I was very disapointed to read that only people from Sub-Saharan Africa and African Americans are affected by this disease. Sub-Saharan Africa is geographically, the area of the continent of Africa that lies south of the Sahara. In the western literature, the first description of sickle cell disease was by a Chicago physician, James B. Herrick, who noted in 1910 that a patient of his from the West Indies had an anemia characterized by unusual red cells that were “sickle shaped.”. Please be aware that sickle cell disease is actually a global illness, and this article is incorrect in stating that “African-Americans and others from tropical sub-Saharan Africa are most susceptible to this disorder”. This is not the case. This disease has origins in the West Indies, and not everyone from the West Indies originates from Africa. It is very important to note that this disease is prevalant in people who are not just from these locations, but people who are genetically linked to these origins.

    It is excellent to see that the March of Dimes is focused on the treatment of Sickle Cell disease. My cousin and sister both have Sickle cell – one has a trait, and the other is significantly ill with this disease, and both are West Indian.

  • comment-avatar

    Debbie – Thanks for your comment. We agree that while these people are “the most susceptible,” they certainly are not the only ones affected by it. As mentioned in the article we link to, “In the United States, SCD is most common among blacks and Hispanics. SCD affects about 1 in 500 black births and about 1 in 36,000 Hispanic births in this country. SCD is also common among people with family from Africa, the Caribbean, Greece, India, Italy, Malta, Sardinia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or South or Central America.”