Hematology and Oncology, Inside Pediatrics, Pulmonology

Solving the Mystery of Lung Disease in Children with Sickle Cell Disease

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Children’s of Alabama pulmonologist Ammar Alishlash, M.D.

If lung disease is the leading cause of death in children with sickle cell disease, then why aren’t pulmonologists more involved in their care earlier? That’s a question Children’s of Alabama pulmonologist Ammar Alishlash, M.D., wanted to answer. “I felt for us to take care of those patients, especially those with underlying lung disease, would serve them better clinically,” Dr. Alishlash said. 

In the past, the leading cause of death in those with sickle cell disease was infections. But the use of prophylactic antibiotics changed that. Today, it’s acute chest syndrome (ACS), marked by shortness of breath, low oxygen levels and fever. Many patients progress to respiratory failure, and some die. Yet lung specialists are not usually involved in their care while in the hospital or after discharge. Instead, in most children’s hospitals they are managed solely by hematologists. 

“The problem is, we don’t have any specific treatment targeted for acute chest syndrome,” said Dr. Alishlash. Instead, patients are managed with supportive therapy, including oxygen, fluids, antibiotics and sometimes invasive or non-invasive ventilation. 

Now Dr. Alishlash is on a mission to change that dynamic. He’s launched a three-pronged research initiative: identifying risk factors for ACS to proactively recognize children with a higher risk, developing clinical pathways to prevent progression and mortality and researching novel therapies to treat the condition. 

“I became interested in this condition because I feel that, as pulmonologists, we have experience with other lung diseases,” he said. “We can apply our knowledge from other lung diseases to the sickle cell population, which could open a lot of doors for diagnosis and new treatments.” 

So far, Dr. Alishlash has instituted a clinical pathway to standardize the care children with ACS receive after admission. The pathway has been in place for about 18 months, and the results are encouraging, with a nearly 50 percent reduction in length of stay. In addition, all patients have survived. Previously, one out of every 100 children would die. “That’s pretty significant, especially when you’re talking about children, who are typically between 2 and 4 years of age when they are most likely to develop ACS,” he said. 

Dr. Alishlash has also made progress in identifying risk factors for ACS in children with sickle cell disease. One is nocturnal hypoxemia, when oxygen levels drop at night. This seems to induce the sickling and is associated with increased risk of ACS.1 He also found a correlation between the neighborhood where patients live and ACS, due to, he thinks, air quality, socioeconomic factors and greater stress.2 

On the laboratory side, Dr. Alishlash and his team are using a sickle cell mouse model to test potential treatments as well as identify triggers. One interesting finding is that chlorine can cause sickling, leading to the release of heme from red blood cells, which is toxic to the lung endothelium and subsequent development of ACS. A medication called hemopexin, however, scavenges the free heme. When given to mice exposed to chlorine who developed ACS, hemopexin reduced the death rate from 80 percent to 20 percent.3 

At the same time, Dr. Alishlash has started a twice-monthly clinic for sickle cell patients with underlying lung disease. The clinic is very busy, he said. “And patients’ outcomes are improving, which is very encouraging.” 


1 Nourani AR, Rahman AKMF, Pernell B, et al. Nocturnal hypoxemia measured by polysomnogram is associated with acute chest syndrome in pediatric sickle cell disease. J Clin Sleep Med. 2021;17(2):219–226.

2 Alishlash, AS, Rutland, SB, Friedman, AJ, et al. Acute chest syndrome in pediatric sickle cell disease: Associations with racial composition and neighborhood deprivation. Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2021; 68:e28877

3 Alishlash AS, Sapkota M, Ahmad I, et al. Chlorine inhalation induces acute chest syndrome in humanized sickle cell mouse model and ameliorated by postexposure hemopexin. Redox Biol. 2021;44:102009. doi:10.1016/j.redox.2021.102009

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