02/19/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

Sickle Cell Treatment: Antidepressant Shows Promise In Reversing Blood Disease

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An antidepressant drug used since the 1960s may hold promise for treating sickle cell disease, say researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School.

Their study, which includes more than 30 years of research, found that the antidepressant tranylcypromine, or TCP, may essentially reverse the effects of the disorder.

An estimated 2.5 million Americans -- including one in every 12 African Americans and one in every 100 Latinos -- carry one copy of the sickle cell gene.

According to the National Institutes of Health, signs and symptoms of sickle cell disease usually begin in early childhood and include a low number of red blood cells (anemia), repeated infections, and periodic episodes of pain. The severity of sickle cell symptoms varies from person to person, with some people experiencing mild symptoms and others requiring frequent hospitalization.

But while U-M scientists say it's too early to test out TCP as a treatment for sickle cell disease, they're confident their findings hold promise.

"It demonstrates that once you understand the basic biological mechanism underlying a disease, you can develop drugs to treat it,” said Doug Engel, Ph.D., senior author of the study and chair of U-M’s Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, in a release.

Patients with sickle cell disease have a form of adult hemoglobin -- the protein responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood -- that can cluster causing red blood cells to become C-shaped or “sickle” shaped, stiff and sticky, Engel explained. Those cells, in turn, can clog small blood vessels in the limbs and internal organs, causing organ damage, pain, and raising the risk of infection.

In a similarly groundbreaking study on sickle cell last year, Chicago resident Ieshea Thomas became one of the first ever to receive a successful stem cell transplant to cure her sickle cell disease. The procedure, which doctors say is only possible for patients who have a healthy sibling who is a compatible donor, has proven to be successful in just a handful of patients across the U.S.

But both developments require further research, experts say.

The first clinical trial on TCP and its affect on sickle cell is now being planned with researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit. Further information will be available later this year if it receives approval to go forward.