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Could gene therapy cure sickle cell anemia?

Nearly 20 years ago, scientists stunned the world when they announced they had decoded the genes that make up a human being. They hoped to use that genetic blueprint to advance something called gene therapy which locates and fixes the genes responsible for different diseases.

Now, a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health is doing exactly that in an attempt to cure sickle cell anemia, a devastating genetic disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year.

For the past 15 months we’ve been following the scientists, and patients, who are ushering in a genetic revolution.

In the laboratory, Dr. Tisdale and his collaborators created a gene with the correct spelling. Then, to get that gene into the patient, they used something with a frightening reputation: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It turns out HIV is especially good at transferring DNA into cells.

Here’s how it works. The corrected gene, seen here in yellow, is inserted into the HIV virus. Then, bone marrow stem cells are taken from of a patient with sickle cell anemia. In the laboratory those cells are combined with the virus carrying that new DNA.