Physicians at Atrium Health working on breakthrough treatment for sickle cell

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Approximately 100,000 Americans suffer from sickle cell disease.

It’s an excruciating pain for many.

The disorder causes blood cells to have an abnormal shape that blocks blood flow.

Enjoli Pettice tried to describe life with sickle cell disease.

“You have a feeling of little tiny people on your bones, and they jackhammer and then they stop, and then they jackhammer and then they stop,” Pettice said.

For years, doctors used narcotics or opioids to give patients relief.

However, the risk of addiction and side effects of withdrawal can lead to more pain.

Researchers at Atrium Health are studying a new option.

“I am a firm believer in thinking outside the box, repurposing old drugs for new reasons,” Atrium Health Dr. Ify Osunkwo said.

Osunkwo said she has seen positive results with buprenorphine, a medication that's been used to help heroin addicts break free from addiction.

“While some think of suboxone [generic name: buprenorphine] for as a medicine to wean people off narcotics, it is actually an effective pain medication. It works in a bit of a different way. The new medication is in my eyes, it's a miracle.“

The medication changed everything for Pettice.

“Two years ago, I was walking with a walker and use of a cane,” she said.

Pettice has gone from needing hospital visits nearly every month to only twice a year.

“It is miraculous to be in the health that I am in now and looking at my future and not worried that sickle cell will get in the way,” she said.

Osunkwo and her colleagues have seen positive outcomes with about 50 patients.