NHGRI logo

Understanding gene therapy approaches

It is important to understand the components of gene therapy, how these components differ and other treatment options for sickle cell disease, such as bone marrow transplant.  

Each of these treatment approaches aim to modify the severity of the disease. Learn more about your red blood cells to help you better understand these various approaches.

Types of treatments

A variety of approaches target the blood stem cells to reduce your symptoms of sickle cell disease.  Gene therapies use your own stem cells, while bone marrow transplants use the stem cells of a matched donor. 

Gene therapy

 In gene therapy, your stem cells are changed by altering part of your genes. Types of gene therapy include gene addition and gene editing. There are two types of gene editing: gene silencing and gene correction. 


While each of these approaches introduces different types of gene-based changes, they start out the same: Your stem cells are collected and taken to a lab for modification.


After modifications are made in a lab, your stem cells are returned to your body. These approaches aim to decrease the amount of hemoglobin S in your red blood cells. If they successfully decrease the hemoglobin S, your cells will not be fragile or even sickle. As a result, these approaches can decrease the complications, treat or prevent symptoms of sickle cell disease. However, this type of gene therapy will neither reverse some complications (such as avascular necrosis) if they are present at the time of the gene therapy nor alter the genes that you pass on to your children.

gene therapy patient at hospital with family

Bone marrow transplant

In a bone marrow transplant, also called a stem cell transplant, your stem cells are replaced with new stem cells that have genes that do not code for sickle cell disease. These new stem cells are usually from another person (an allo-transplant). To learn more about bone marrow transplant, talk with your health care provider or a transplant doctor.

bone stem cell transplant patient at hospital with family

The Democratizing Education Project welcomes your feedback about the sickle cell disease gene therapy resources. Please email your comments or questions to DemocratizingEd@mail.nih.gov.

These educational materials are for informational purposes only. They are meant to promote your general understanding of gene therapy for sickle cell disease. We encourage you to use these educational materials to talk with your healthcare provider or a clinical trial team.

Patient education materials

Last updated: February 13, 2024