New FDA-approved drug to treat sickle cell anemia discovered in Oklahoma lab

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) - There’s a major breakthrough in the pharmaceutical world that could improve the quality of life for a disease prevalent in those with African descent. Novartis recently received FDA approval to sell a drug aimed at relieving pain for those with sickle cell anemia, and it was first discovered in Oklahoma City.

Mary Long is a beloved employee at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation for more than 30 years.

Keeping these halls clean and windows streak-free is her job.

But what you wouldn't know on the outside is that Mary lives with excruciating pain.

"It's just sometimes all over. Your legs, your buttocks, your side. Your hands,” Mary Long said.

While pregnant with her first child in 1970 Mary was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia.  A disease that turns normally round blood cells into crescent shapes-- that can become painfully clogged in blood vessels.

"This causes excruciating pain because there's no oxygen going to the tissues,” Dr. Rodger McEver, vice president of research at OMRF said.

There's not a lot of treatment available.

"Take Tylenol sometimes. I can't say things really help it because I don't think they do,” Long said.

But an astonishing breakthrough-- in the very place Mary works.

"It started in the 1980s when we discovered a protein we now call P-selectin. Over the years we found out this protein had a very important role in promoting inflammation and assisting in blood clotting,” Dr. McEver said.

OMRF, along with Biotech Lab Selexys Pharmaceutical Corporation created a drug that blocks that protein from creating painful clots.

"The trial showed the optimal dose of our drug reduced the incidence of vaso-occlusive crisis by about 50% over the course of a year,” Dr. McEver said.

With recent FDA approval, drug-giant Novartis snapped up Selexys and the rights to make and sell the drug-- for $665 million. It could change Mary’s life in the future-- and promises to help hundreds of thousands like her.

"And I work here. And this is where it took place so you know that's something to be even more overjoyed about."

This is an injectable drug, and it's not cheap. It will cost up to $9,000 a month.

Novartis told News 4 the patients’ out-of-pocket cost will depend on their insurance coverage.

This is the 4th time in 70 years, that OMRF has developed a drug approved by the FDA.

For more information, click here.

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