Her story: Courtney Fitzhugh first became interested in sickle cell disease when she was in college, an interest she continued to pursue throughout medical school. . During medical school, she participated in the NIH Clinical Research Training Program, where she studied with Dr. John Tisdale, one of the top researchers in bone marrow transplantation for sickle cell disease. Years later, she returned to NIH as a full-time researcher. Today, Fitzhugh’s research focuses on half-matched donors, people whose donor stem cells match only about half of the HLA antigens (proteins on the stem cells) of the recipient. The procedure has the potential to greatly expand the pool of sickle cell patients who might benefit from bone marrow transplants. Her work, combined with recent improvements in immunosuppressant medications, allowed half-matched transplant procedures to become more effective.
Biggest challenges: Fitzhugh notes that one of the challenges of clinical research in sickle cell disease is the uncertainty of treatment outcomes. “The biggest frustration for me is not being able to cure everyone. I don’t know upfront when the transplant is going to work and when it’s not, and it’s extremely difficult having to tell patients that the transplant didn’t work and that their sickle cell disease will come back.”
Motivator: “It is extremely rewarding working with a patient population where they have had a debilitating disease their whole life and watching them transform into a new life which is free of sickle cell disease.”
Her dream: “There is so much hope for the future with exciting new drug studies and curative options that are being explored within and outside of NIH. What excites me about NIH is having amazing resources to perform innovative research and a wonderful team of investigators to work and collaborate with.”