PITTSBURGH, Sept. 19, 2013 – Three national leaders in the research and treatment of sickle cell disease have joined the UPMC Adult Sickle Cell Disease Program, marking a major commitment by UPMC to improving the care of patients with this devastating genetic disease and promoting research toward a cure.
The recruitment of Solomon Ofori-Acquah, Ph.D., Laura DeCastro, M.D., and Gregory J. Kato, M.D., strengthens a team headed by Enrico Novelli, M.D., director of the Adult Sickle Cell Disease Program, and Lakshmanan Krishnamurti, M.D., director of the Pediatric Sickle Cell Disease Program. Their arrival also comes nearly one year after UPMC helped launch a campaign for sickle cell awareness and donations called the Ryan Clark Cure League in partnership with the Steelers’ safety.
The three doctors bring to Pittsburgh a wealth of knowledge about sickle cell disease, in which the body produces red blood cells with abnormal hemoglobin that take on a sickle shape and can block the flow of healthy, oxygenated blood to the body’s organs and tissues.
“These doctors join a very strong multidisciplinary team that includes experts in hematology and pulmonology and provides patients not only the latest clinical therapies, but also access to cutting-edge research in blood diseases,” said Edward Chu, M.D., chief of the UPMC Division of Hematology/Oncology and deputy director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.
Dr. Kato, who most recently served as director of the Sickle Cell Vascular Disease Section at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will serve as director of the UPMC Sickle Cell Disease Research Center of Excellence. Dr. Ofori-Acquah will lead a newly created Center for Translational and International Hematology, which will guide new research programs and partnerships with sickle cell disease programs in Africa. Dr. DeCastro will partner with Dr. Novelli to direct the adult sickle cell clinical programs, lead the efforts to develop novel clinical and translational research programs, and serve as clinical director of the benign hematology program at UPMC to expand clinical programs in hemostasis and thrombosis. In addition she will serve as director of benign hematology for the Institute for Transfusion Medicine and UPMC CancerCenter, and director of clinical translational research for the Sickle Cell Disease Research Center of Excellence.
“It’s incredibly special not only to the sickle cell community but also to the national research community to bring three of the brightest minds on this disease together in one place,” said Mark Gladwin, M.D., director of the Pittsburgh Heart, Lung, Blood and Vascular Medicine Institute (VMI), supported by both UPMC and the Institute for Transfusion Medicine.
An estimated 2 million Americans carry one of the sickle cell genes. One of every 500 African-American births and one of every 36,000 Spanish-American births carry the trait, and its inherited blood disorders also affect people of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. Millions of people worldwide suffer from sickle cell disease, anemia or pain and other symptoms resulting from this disease, for which there is one Food and Drug Administration-approved drug.
Since 2003, Dr. Kato has conducted clinical-translational research in adults with sickle cell disease at the NIH. His work has advanced the understanding of phenotypic variation in the disease and focuses on biomarkers and mediators of vascular dysfunction in sickle cell disease, particularly those associated with pulmonary hypertension and leg ulceration. He also has led early-phase testing of investigational drugs for sickle cell disease.
Dr. Kato earned an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and his medical degree from George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He has received numerous awards and honors for his work at NIH and elsewhere. Prior to joining the NHLBI, Dr. Kato was an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, as well as the Division of Pediatric Oncology at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.
Dr. Ofori-Acquah joined Pitt’s Division of Hematology-Oncology on Aug. 1 as a visiting associate professor of medicine and director of the Center for Translational and International Hematology, part of the VMI. His recent work soon to be published in the prestigious Journal of Clinical Investigation has provided a paradigm shift in scientific understanding of acute chest syndrome, a devastating lung complication of sickle cell disease. He has received a major, five-year grant from the NIH to pursue this new avenue of research in acute chest syndrome, which promises to deliver a new line of therapy to manage this life-threatening complication.
Dr. Ofori-Acquah had been an assistant professor at Emory University in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Hematology/Oncology and founding director of the Center for Endothelial Biology.
A native of Ghana, Dr. Ofori-Acquah studied medical laboratory sciences majoring in hematology and blood transfusion at Bromley College of Technology in Kent, England, before earning his master’s degree in biomolecular organization at Birkbeck College, University of London. He earned his doctorate in molecular genetics from King’s College School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of London.
Dr. DeCastro was an associate professor of medicine with the Division of Hematology in the Department of Medicine at Duke University before coming to UPMC. She earned her medical degree at Autonomous University of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and did her residency in internal medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. She completed a fellowship in hematology oncology at Yale University School of Medicine.
Since 1999, Dr. DeCastro has been the clinical director of the Duke Adult Sickle Cell Center, where she developed and coordinated the delivery of multidisciplinary clinical care to adult sickle cell patients. Her major research interests have been in investigating the impact on sickle cell disease on end-organ damage, on investigating the psychosocial issues relating to sickle cell disease, and on developing novel treatments for sickle cell disease. She has been the principal investigator (PI) and Co-PI of more than 20 NIH- and industry-sponsored clinical studies focusing on sickle cell disease as well as other hemoglobinopathies.