Sickle Cell Treatment Breakthrough

Acting on a motion by its chairman, Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Board of Supervisors awarded a scroll to pioneering hematologist Dr. Yutaka Niihara, whose research recently led to a breakthrough in the treatment of a painful blood condition that primarily affects African American communities.

All photos by Diandra Jay/Board of Supervisors

Working at the Los Angeles County-operated Harbor UCLA Medical Center, and at the nonprofit scientific research organization on the same campus, LA BioMed, Dr. Niihara spent almost three decades developing the first drug ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat sickle cell disease in children. Known as “Endari,” it is also first drug in 20 years for treating sickle cell disease in adults.

“The FDA’s approval of this treatment will significantly improve the lives of thousands of people in the United States who suffer from this disease, and many more around the world,” Chairman Ridley-Thomas said. “We’re here to say ‘Thank you’ to Dr. Niihara for his dedication and hard work.”

Dr. Niihara expressed gratitude for the honor, but said credit should also go to the County. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened in the LA County medical system. First of all, if it weren’t for the LA County system, I wouldn’t have met so many wonderful sickle cell patients who inspired me, and also many researchers and physicians who are so dedicated.”

Dr. Yutaka Niihara and patient Juanita Gougis

Sickle cell disease can lead to numerous complications, including anemia, recurring pain episodes, respiratory troubles, and even death. “I’m very pleased to say that starting at the end of October or the beginning of November, the 100,000 people in the US who suffer from sickle cell disease will have a way of eliminating their pain and their suffering and the incredible number of hospital stays that come along with (this condition),” LA Biomed President and CEO David Meyer, PhD., said. “In the future, more importantly, the 25 million people in the world who suffer from sickle cell disease will have a low-cost, easy-to-use therapy.”

Sickle cell patient Juanita Gougis of Inglewood said she is among those who has benefited from Dr. Niihara’s work. “I used to suffer a lot, and now, with Endari, I have fewer hospital visits. It’s just impacted my life in such a great way and I’m very hopeful for the future and very, very, thankful.”