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A cautionary note regarding hydroxyurea in sickle cell disease

EP Vichinsky and BH Lubin

Abstract

Hydroxyurea can increase fetal hemoglobin (HbF) and improve the clinical course of sickle cell disease (SCD) patients. However, several issues of hydroxyurea therapy remain unresolved, including differences in patients' drug clearance, predictability of drug response, reversibility of sickle cell disease-related organ damage by hydroxyurea, and the efficacy of elevated HbF. We treated two patients with hydroxyurea for periods of 1 to 4 years, monitoring clinical course and laboratory parameters at regular intervals. The first patient (patient A) had a history of chronic pain and extensive hospitalizations. The second patient (patient B) had a history of stroke and refused to continue with chronic transfusion therapy and chelation. Both patients showed a fivefold to tenfold increase in HbF (5% to 25%, 3% to 31%). However, patient A developed an acute chest syndrome, despite an HbF level of 20%. After red blood cell transfusions for hypoxia, the HbF level decreased to 5%. When hydroxyurea dosage was increased, pancytopenia developed and was not resolved until 2 months after hydroxyurea was discontinued; Patient B developed a cerebral hemorrhage on hydroxyurea; he died shortly thereafter. His HbF level was 21% before death. We noted an increase in HbF and a general improvement in the two patients. However, both experienced major SCD-related complications despite HbF levels over 20%. Our findings also suggest that the progressive vascular changes associated with SCD are unlikely to be dramatically affected by increased HbF levels. Because neither the efficacy nor the toxicity of hydroxyurea have been thoroughly investigated, physicians should be cautious in prescribing hydroxyurea for patients with SCD before completion of the National Clinical Trial.