Nightly News   |  December 09, 2009

NIH discovers key to sickle cell cure

Dec. 9: A breakthrough stem cell procedure could soon help cure thousands of adults with sickle cell and other inherited blood disorders. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.

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>>> we mentioned this at the top of the broadcast. in health news tonight, a genuine breakthrough being reported for adults suffering from sickle cell anemia , a genetic defect involving red blood cells that affect 70,000 african-americans and millions worldwide. it causes frequent, severe pain and can be fatal. there is a way to street it. more from our chief science correspondent robert bazell .

>> reporter: this doctor is lrning to be a pilot. fleming was born with sickle cell disease .

>> i could never make long-term plans that required a long-term commitment because i just never thought i'd be around that long.

>> reporte

>> reporter: then he heard a team led by dr. john tisdale was performing experimental transplants for sickle cell , using stem cells from healthy siblings. there have been about 200 transplants in children whose immune systems were more receptive, but does not work in adults.

>> any joint pain ?

>> reporter: until the nih team learned how to tweak the immune system . in the first ten patients reported today, results have been spectacular in nine.

>> this is an unhealthy cell?

>> reporter: the sickle-sped red blood cells that don't carry oxygen properly simply disappear. along with all the harsh symptoms of the disease.

>> we are hesitant to use the word "cure," but they are free of sickle cell disease now. they are no longer in the hospital. they are no longer requiring chronic pain medications for the frequent pain crisis patients suffer.

>> reporter: the procedure could soon help thousands of adults with sickle cell and people with many different inherited blood disorders . lester fleming has no problem calling it a cure.

>> i'm going to travel, i'm going to be a better friend, a boyfriend, a better son.

>> reporter: he and his girlfriend are building aouse together, preparing for a new life without boundaries. robe bazell, nbc news, bethesda, maryland.

>>> van barfoot of henrico county ,