Dr. Fitzhugh is exploring new avenues of hematopoietic cell transplantation (HCT) for sickle cell disease (SCD), while also studying the long-term health effects of curative therapies for SCD.
Currently, HCT offers the only real cure for patients with SCD, though the transplantation procedure can only be applied to select people, and it carries its own set of health risks. One risk is that traditional stem cell transplants involve high dose chemotherapy, which cannot be tolerated by many adults with SCD due to pre-existing organ damage. Dr. Fitzhugh and her team have been developing an alternative approach in which patients receive agents that focus on eradicating the immune system while avoiding high dose chemotherapy. Dr. Fitzhugh has demonstrated the efficacy of this non-myeloablative procedure in both mice and human volunteers, and is currently participating in a long-term follow-up study in patients to see if they remain free of SCD.
Dr. Fitzhugh is also conducting a half-matched protocol to increase the number of people eligible for HCT. The current procedure requires a fully HLA-matched sibling donor, and less than 15% of patients with SCD would qualify. Through a half-matched donor protocol, 90% of patients have parents, children, and siblings who could serve as stem cell donors. However, the immune system barriers and potential complications are greater. Dr. Fitzhugh is currently examining the feasibility of this approach in a clinical pilot study and studying in the laboratory why half-matched transplant is successful in some patients and not others.
Dr. Fitzhugh is also interested in learning more about the long-term health effects of curative therapies in patients with SCD. Her team has already shown in small studies that heart morphology improves, tricuspid regurgitant jet velocity decreases, and kidney function remains normal after non-myeloablative HCT with follow-up of up to 3 years. Dr. Fitzhugh is collaborating with investigators to study the impact of curative therapies on organ function, and also leads an NIH study to deeply phenotype major organs in patients with SCD who undergo HCT or receive standard therapy.
Lastly, the incidence of myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukemia is higher than expected after graft rejection and gene therapy for SCD. Dr. Fitzhugh and her team have shown that TP53 mutations found at the time of myeloid malignancy diagnosis were present at baseline in a small number of patients. They are now interested in exploring genetic risk factors for myeloid malignancy development after curative therapies for SCD. Altogether, Dr. Fitzhugh’s group seeks to develop a personalized approach to curative therapies for SCD.
Meet the Team
Courtney Fitzhugh, M.D.
Courtney Fitzhugh received her B.S. magna cum laude from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1996, and her M.D. from the University of California, San Francisco in 2001. During medical school, Dr. Fitzhugh participated in the NIH Clinical Research Training Program, where she studied with Dr. John Tisdale in NIDDK/NHLBI. After receiving her M.D., Dr. Fitzhugh completed a joint residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center, and in 2005 she did a combined adult hematology and pediatric hematology-oncology fellowship at the NIH and Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Fitzhugh returned to the NHLBI in 2007 and was appointed as Assistant Clinical Investigator in 2012 and Lasker Clinical Research Scholar as a Clinical Tenure Track Investigator in 2016. She is a member of the American Society of Hematology and the American Society of Transplantation and Cellular Therapy.