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Interview With Committee on Promoting Diversity Member Kenneth Ataga, MD

Kenneth Ataga, MD is a professor of medicine and director of the sickle cell program at the University of North Carolina Comprehensive Sickle Cell Program. He provides clinical care to adult patients and is actively involved in clinical research in sickle cell disease. Dr. Ataga is an active member of ASH’s Committee on Promoting Diversity and serves as a career development mentor for three alumni of the Minority Medical Student Award Program.

What/who prompted your interest in hematology? What interests you about sickle cell disease?

When I was in medical school, I wanted to become cardiologist. However, I changed my mind during my residency training in internal medicine at Upstate Medical University at Syracuse, NY. The hematology-oncology program at Syracuse was quite strong and I was greatly influenced by several of the faculty, particularly Drs. Kenneth Zamkoff, David Duggan and Richard Cherny. By observing them, I learnt that a good hematologist is not only compassionate, but also has a very strong foundation in medicine.

Several factors influenced by decision to focus my clinical and research interests on sickle cell disease. For one, I grew up in Nigeria, a country with the highest sickle cell disease burden in the world. It is near impossible to be Nigerian and not know a family that is affected by sickle cell disease. During the course of my training, I was struck not only by the largely negative perceptions about patients with sickle cell disease, but by the few hematologists with clinical and research interests in this disease. Although caused primarily by a mutation involving the beta globin chain, the pathophysiology of sickle cell disease is complicated. However, this complicated pathophysiology provides multiple opportunities for the development of therapies for afflicted individuals.

Are there any new therapies that you are working on or following closely? How will it change the lives of those who are impacted by SCD?

With the increased interest and participation of the pharmaceutical industry in developing new drugs for sickle cell disease, these are exciting times for those of us in the field. Over the last several years, I have been involved in studies assessing multiple drugs in sickle cell disease. While some of these have not been successful, I am optimistic about several recently completed multicenter studies, including studies of SelG1, a P-selectin blocking antibody, to decrease the frequency of painful crises and Vepoloxamer, a nonionic, block copolymer, as treatment for acute pain episodes. In addition, I look forward to the completion of the study of Rivipansel, a pan-selectin inhibitor, to decrease the duration of acute pain episodes. As hydroxyurea remains the only FDA-approved drug for sickle cell anemia, it is my hope that these drugs, and others that are currently undergoing clinical trials, will contribute towards changing the treatment landscape of sickle cell disease.

Is there anything about SCD that you wish more people knew or that more physician-scientists would research?

There are several things that I wish more people knew about sickle cell disease. First, although it is described as a disease that commonly affects individuals of African descent, sickle cell disease also affects Hispanics and Caucasians. Second, despite the multiple morbidities associated with the disease, many individuals with sickle cell disease are productive members of the society. Over the years, I have provided care to patients who are college students, medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, etc. Third, despite the substantial advancement in medical care, individuals with sickle cell disease still have a shortened life expectancy compared with the general US population.

A lot has been learnt about the pathophysiology of sickle cell disease, but there is still more work to be done. More treatments that have a positive impact on the lives of individuals with sickle cell disease are needed.

You are very involved with ASH’s Committee on Promoting Diversity. Why do you believe it is so important for hematologists, such as yourself, to encourage URM to pursue hematology?

It is important that the field of hematology reflect the population at large. While many hematologists do an excellent job in caring for patients, perhaps having hematologists that reflect the general population may help to decrease stereotypes and further improve patient satisfaction.

What is it about your patients that keeps you going on your toughest days?

I am truly inspired by the strength shown by my patients every day.

ASH’s Sickle Cell Initiative seeks to invest and enhance sickle cell research and ensure that patients with SCD receive the best care. What do you find most exciting about the Sickle Cell Initiative and where do you hope we are in terms of developing a cure in the next 15-25 years? What is the first step toward improving the quality of care for SCD patients?

I am particularly excited about ASH’s efforts to expand global initiatives on sickle cell disease. With the increased prevalence of sickle cell disease in sub-Saharan African and the impact of sickle cell disease on childhood mortality, every effort should be made towards developing the healthcare infrastructure and increasing the know-how in this population, with a goal towards improving patient outcomes. With the increased interest in developing new treatments for this disease, it is important that every effort is made to include sites in sub-Saharan Africa. This will, not only expose patients to novel therapies, but will contribute to the development of infrastructure and training of healthcare personnel.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles ASH faces in increasing diversity in its membership, and how do you think this can best be accomplished?

It is important that the number of underrepresented minorities in medical schools continues to increase. This will increase the pool of physicians who will consider the field of hematology as a career. There should be an increased emphasis on early exposure of medical students to hematology and hematology-related research, as is currently being done through programs like the ASH Minority Initiative. There are many residents and fellows who really like hematology, but end up in the practice of medical oncology because of the disparities in pay. Increased salaries for hematologists will likely go a long way to attracting more people (and underrepresented minorities) into the field.