WEDNESDAY, Sept. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Patients suffering from a severe, inherited blood disorder may one day benefit from a new gene therapy and no longer need regular blood transfusions, new research suggests.
However, far more study is needed to determine whether the therapy is safe and effective. So far only one patient has received the experimental treatment, and the researchers have followed him for only three years.
The blood disorder -- beta-thalassemia -- occurs when a crucial blood protein known as beta globin is missing from the red blood cells that carry oxygen. Without beta globin, many of the red blood cells die off, causing severe anemia and eventually death if the person goes untreated.
Beta-thalassemia mostly affects people of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Chinese descent. Some 100,000 children are born with the disease each year around the world, according to the March of Dimes, and untreated, those with the most severe form usually die in childhood.
In those treated, the excess iron building up from the blood transfusions must be removed with chelating drugs, which can cause unpleasant side effects ranging from joint pain and vomiting to vision and hearing problems.
And even though lifesaving treatments have greatly improved prospects for long-term survival, those with the disorder are at risk of heart failure and other life-threatening complications -- some related to the treatments themselves -- as they age.
Among those struggling with this illness -- and often losing -- was a teenager who volunteered for the gene therapy. Like many others, he needed a matched donor for a stem cell transplant, but none was available, the study noted.
"The patient was 18 years old when we first treated him and [had been] transfused monthly for most of his life," said lead researcher Dr. Philippe Leboulch, a professor of medi
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