It is most common in people of African and Caribbean descent and around 200 to 300 babies a year are born with sickle-cell disorders in the UK. PR efforts have recently centred on screening.
Tell us about the new drug
US-based biotech firm Medinox has carried out pre-clinical studies on rats of a drug, MX-1520, that uses a type of vanilla, called vanillin. Once it enters the bloodstream, trials have so far found a reduction in ‘sickling’. Taking vanillin orally would not be effective because it is broken down in the intestine.
Isn’t Media Strategy trying to boost awareness of sickle-cell disorders?
Yes, that’s right. The agency won the account last year (PRWeek, 5 March 2004) to promote NHS screening programmes for sickle cell and a related condition, thalassaemia. It has targeted midwives, GPs and nurses, in addition to media relations work with Afro-Caribbean ethnic media in an attempt to help community leaders spread the message among social groups at the highest risk.
Are there other treatments available?
Relatively few. Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Droxia (hydroxyurea) is not licensed for use in this country. Bone marrow transplant – a high-risk and difficult operation – is seen as the only effective treatment at present. So a drug such as MX-1520, if it proves effective in humans, could be a step forward. But as yet, the Sickle Cell Society and the NHS say they have no information on the drug, which reinforces the fact that its use is a long way off. Control of sickle-cell pain is currently achieved through analgesics ranging from paracetamol to codeine phosphate and anti-inflammatories. For more serious cases, diamorphine – heroin – is used.