Photo Courtesy B corbin/WJBC/Illinois Wesleyan University
By Eric Stock
A disease that's often overlooked in the U.S. has grabbed the attention of an Illinois Wesleyan professor. Brian Brennan, a bio-organic chemist and assistant professor of chemistry, has secured a $285,000 grant for an undergraduate class to study treatments for sickle-cell disease.
"It's been understood for a very long time, and over the last 60, 70 years, no one has come up with good treatments for it. I would be pretty bold to state that I would come up with a great solution in the next couple of years," Brennan said, hinting that a three-year project with one group of four undergraduate students likely won't be enough time for major breakthroughs.
Sickle cell disease is a debilitating blood disorder caused by a gene mutation that causes red blood cells to form a sickle shape. The disease most often manifests itself in damage to the spleen.
The disorder is linked to shorter life expectancy.
Brennan said since the disease affects fewer than 100,000 people in the U.S., the pharmaceutical companies have largely ignored it. The federal government has labeled sickle cell an orphan disease and is providing funding for those who will study it. It's much more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately 25 percent of the population has the sickle cell trait and one to two percent of all babies there are born with a form of the disease.
The only cure for the disorder is a bone marrow transplant, which isn't feasible in that part of the world.
"The dream would be someday, someone with sickle cell disease would just take a pill and they wouldn't have these attacks," Brennan said.
The grant marks the first time IWU has been the sole recipient of a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The award will fund research supplies, a new flourimeter and stipends for Brennan's class to work in the lab during the next three summers.
Eric Stock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.