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VOL. 133 | NO. 53 | Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Director Chosen For New UTHSC Sickle Cell Disease Center

By Andy Meek

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The University of Tennessee Health Science Center has launched a new Center for Sickle Cell Disease in the College of Medicine and tapped a leader for it who will come on board in July.

Dr. Kenneth Ataga will direct the center, which is a collaborative effort between UTHSC, West Cancer Center, Methodist University Hospital and Regional One Health. Ataga is also being named the Methodist Endowed Chair in Sickle Cell Anemia. Adding to the list of job titles that await him in Memphis, Ataga – a native of Nigeria – also will serve as a professor of internal medicine, director of Non Malignant Hematology in the Division of Hematology/Oncology and the director of the Memphis Consortium for Sickle Cell Disease and Non Malignant Hematology Research.

Dr. Kenneth Ataga

He comes to UTHSC from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. He’s been a professor there as well as director of the UNC Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program.

His research focuses on the development of new treatments for sickle cell disease and its complications. The seeds of his interest in this area of medicine were planted in part by what he saw growing up in Nigeria, which has a significant population that has suffered from sickle cell disease.

“I had several friends with it, but during my training it became very obvious to me there were disparities in the types of treatments patients with sickle cell disease got, compared to patients with other medical problems,” he said. “I’m very excited about the opportunity to come to Memphis. I thought this would be an opportunity to build on what I’ve been doing over the last many years.”

That work, according to UTHSC chancellor Dr. Steve Schwab, has included pioneering new research into the disease, as well as Ataga serving as lead investigator in several studies and maintaining a string of research funding.

As part of building a career that’s seen him become an authority on the disease, Ataga has been active in the American Society of Hematology, and he’s a member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation and the Southern Society of Clinical Investigation.

He’s also written academic articles, book chapters and abstracts, and his research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the pharmaceutical industry.

Sickle cell disease research has picked up steam locally in recent years, with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Methodist formally teaming up to advance research and clinical care for adult sickle cell disease patients in the Memphis area.

The fall of 2012 also saw the opening of the Methodist Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center, an effort to provide comprehensive care to adults.

Ataga said there’s still much more to be learned about the disease. A bone marrow transplant is curative, but it’s not available to everyone, is expensive and comes with the risk of complications to boot, so new treatments also need to be found.

“We are extremely excited to welcome Dr. Kenneth Ataga as the inaugural director of the UTHSC Center for Sickle Cell Disease,” said Dr. Lee Schwartzberg, chief of hematology and oncology in the UTHSC Department of Medicine and executive director of the West Cancer Center. “He will integrate all the clinical, research and educational activities around sickle cell disease currently being provided in our region under one program and thus elevate our care and understanding of this disease.”

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