As reported by The Hartford Courant, June 3, 2011.

Sickle Cell Disease Shows UConn Health Center's Potential

By Rick Green

The tantalizing potential of Gov. Malloy's $900 million gamble on the University of Connecticut Health Center can be seen in a forgotten illness that almost nobody particularly cares about.

Sickle cell disease is an often painful genetic blood disorder that afflicts tens of thousands of people in the United States, most of them African American. Another 25 million worldwide suffer from the stigmatized illness.

There's no "race for the cure" for this chronic disease: It kills poor blacks and Latinos, many from our own Connecticut cities.

"It is a disease that is underappreciated, underfunded and under-cared for," said William Zempsky, a UConn professor and physician at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center, as he welcomed a small gathering of researchers at the Health Center Thursday morning.

But the disease no one cares about could also be a huge opportunity for Connecticut.

UConn's fledgling sickle cell "core interest group" is the type of research initiative one of numerous collaborative projects that could grow into a big-time program under an expanded UConn hospital, attracting promising researchers and federal and private funding.

Obviously, this might be very good for people who suffer from sickle cell. But it also means jobs and growth for the region, which is the whole point of Malloy's Bioscience Connecticut project.

The trick is you can't attract prominent physician-researchers without a major investment in your facility. It's why state representatives should move quickly to give final approval to Malloy's billion-dollar expansion of the Health Center.

I hear critics in the legislature complain that it's too much, too fast and too costly. It is very expensive, but we've been discussing various versions of this plan for years, even as we watch Connecticut's well-paid manufacturing jobs morph into part-time slots at the mall. This is a chance to make a name where it matters: research jobs for the future.

"We could become a mecca for treatment of sickle cell disease," Cato Laurencin, vice president of health affairs for UConn and dean of the medical school, told me shortly after making remarks to the UConn group. This hinges on "creating a cadre of scientists" to dramatically expand research in Connecticut, he said.

To do that, Connecticut must get better at attracting these physician-scientists, who haven't had a lot of reasons to bring their research to the state.

You do that with a bigger research facility that is tied to other hospitals and universities in the region. You do that by hiring people such as Biree Andemariam, a young physician and researcher I met Thursday who represents the kind of future we should be striving for. A Princeton and Tufts graduate, she came to UConn to study, among other things, why individuals with sickle cell disease are more susceptible to infections.

"They die, essentially, of a common cold," Andemariam told me during a break at Thursday's one-day sickle cell conference at the health center.

"We should be the ones taking the lead in treating and in research of sickle cell disease," she said. "UConn could really make a name for itself."

Investing in the Health Center means that "UConn is serious about advancing biomedical science and giving researchers the time to conduct research and develop novel therapies," said Andemariam, who is married to Hartford mayoral candidate Shawn Wooden. "There is no reason why someone living in Connecticut should feel like they have to go to Boston or New York for their care."

In many ways, the small group of researchers from UConn, Children's and Yale is already doing what Malloy's Bioscience Connecticut promises collaborating to try to build something bigger.

Sickle cell disease, shamefully ignored for decades, ironically now offers a glimpse of a better economic future. We have a chance to determine what will happen instead of waiting for someone else. Let's not miss out.