Versiti - Sickle Cell Disease: Our Fight for Better Innovation and Care | Dr. Joshua Field, MD, MS

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Sickle Cell Disease: Our Fight for Better Innovation and Care

December 29, 2021

Versiti’s continued commitment to research, discovery and treatment provides hope for sickle cell patients in our communities and around the world.


Versiti Blood Research Institute has long been recognized as an expert in blood health innovation. Recently, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) launched a new clinical trials network focused on sickle cell disease (SCD) and invited Versiti Blood Research Institute's Joshua Field, MD, MS, who heads the Adult Sickle Cell Clinic at the Medical College of Wisconsin, to participate. “The point of the network is to link institutions together and study rare diseases, so that you have the number of patients needed to conduct research.” This network will encompass a range of topics, from epidemiological studies (which involve better understanding of SCD) to research of better treatments for patients.

Because of his wealth of expertise, Dr. Field, in conjunction with the Medical College of Wisconsin and Versiti Blood Research Institute, was recently approached to participate in a new SCD study. “We’ve been recognized as one of the premier centers in the country,” Dr. Field said. “Versiti Blood Research Institute is one of the institutions that has the expertise to conduct innovative research in sickle cell disease.”

The importance of diverse blood donors

In addition to his research at Versiti and involvement in the new ASH clinical trials network, Dr. Field continues to see patients like Elodie Ontala at the Adult Sickle Cell Clinic at Froedtert Hospital. Every four weeks, Elodie receives seven units of blood to manage her SCD, reduce pain crises and decrease the likelihood of stroke. “I’ve been through a lot with my disease,” she said. “The Sickle Cell Clinic has always been attentive to my care.”

Elodie is one of 500 patients treated at the clinic, and one of about 50 who receives chronic blood transfusions. “Transfusions are a cornerstone of therapy at the clinic, and you can’t run a successful sickle cell program without an adequate blood supply,” Dr. Field said. In fact, he said Versiti’s dedicated blood donor base and transfusion medicine expertise are uniquely positioned to support SCD patients. “With Versiti, focusing on the blood is the key. That requires a lot of blood and a lot of support, because the patients get well-matched blood.”

Finding well-matched blood for SCD patients is paramount to their care. Patients who receive chronic blood transfusions often develop antibodies against the transfused red blood cells, requiring a regular supply of specially matched blood, including the uncommon Ro blood type. “These patients consume enormous amounts of blood; it requires a large base of diverse donors who can supply the units,” Dr. Field said. “In order to conduct successful transfusions, you need ethnically diverse donors who are more apt to express a similar profile of proteins to our patients. Otherwise, it’s difficult to support this patient population and essentially, they form immune reactions against the transfused units.”

As a sickle cell patient and member of the African American community—as well as a Versiti employee—no one understands the need for diverse units of blood more than Elodie. “Diverse units are central to Versiti’s mission, and they’re very necessary to the cause of sickle cell,” she said. “It’s awesome to see leadership and staff understand that this goal is a long-term commitment—it’s not just this year’s focus. It has to become part of us—it has to become part of the way we do things,” she said.

“With blood, everybody thinks that someone else will donate,” she added. “But we can’t keep expecting other people to do it. You have to show up!”

Learn more about donating blood for sickle cell patients.

About the expert: Joshua Field, MD, MS, is the senior medical director of hematology at Versiti and a senior investigator at Versiti Blood Research Institute.

Elodie Ontala is a patient advocacy liaison at Versiti.

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