Can gene therapy cure sickle cell anemia?

60-Minutes-Dr.-John-Tisdale-talks-w-sickle-cell-patient-Jenelle-Stephenson-031019-by-CBS, Can gene therapy cure sickle cell anemia?, News & Views
In the 60 Minutes show on sickle cell, Dr. John Tisdale talks with Jenelle Stephenson, 27, one of only nine people testing gene therapy for sickle cell anemia. She describes the pain of sickle cell as sharp, stabbing, almost bone-crushing and laments the times she’s been accused of faking pain to get drugs. “I’m in so much pain, and you think I just want some morphine. And it just makes me sad that some people in the medical community just don’t get it.” – Photo: CBS

by Cousin Mack, aka Professor Willie C. Thompson

The CBS news program 60 Minutes aired March 10, 2019, raised the question: Could gene therapy cure sickle cell anemia? The program was informative, fascinating, inspiring and hopeful.

According to the program, sickle cell anemia is a disease that evolved in places like sub-Saharan Africa because it protects people from Malaria. There are millions of cases in the world and 100,000 in the United States of America. Most are African-American. The conclusion of the program is that a cure for sickle cell anemia may be at hand. You can watch the program on your computer or cell phone. I hope you will watch it.

There is one case of sickle cell anemia in our extended family, the Williams-Hudson family of Harris County, Georgia. I think it is worth noting that our family includes a stem cell researcher, Vance Holt IV, Ph.D., who works in the Washington, D.C., area. He is the great grandson of Aunt Mattie Adams, 1898-1925. Mattie was the 11th child of Isaac and Georgiann. She died of the “eating cancer.” The search for a cure for sickle cell anemia also involves stem cell research.

The case in our family is from the Annie Williams family line. Aunt Annie is the 10th child of Isaac and Georgiann. I spoke with the mother yesterday who said that her daughter had gone to the doctor for treatment for her pain. She has two children.

A student in my Anthropology class at City College of San Francisco had the disease. One day she had an attack and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. I watched her from the front of the classroom with the students as she nearly doubled up in “bone-crushing pain.”

That was around 30 years ago, but the image of a person with sickle cell anemia in pain is etched in my heart and brain forever. I now feel hopeful.

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, featured in the 60 Minutes program said: “ I believe that this looks like a cure. I gotta be careful. But from every angle that I know how to size this up, this looks like a cure.”

Cousin Mack (Professor Willie C. Thompson) is professor emeritus of sociology, City College of San Francisco. Email him at