May 13, 2021

GRA unveils initiative to fight sickle cell disease

Gov. Brian Kemp makes announcement; Eminent Scholar chair named for Rep. Calvin Smyre

ATLANTA, May 13, 2021—Seeking to capitalize on Georgia’s strengths in university research and healthcare, the Georgia Research Alliance today introduced a five-year initiative to advance exploration into sickle cell disease (SCD), including new treatments and therapies.

The announcement, made by Gov. Brian Kemp at a gathering in Columbus, Ga., included news that a GRA Eminent Scholar chair would be created at Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM), Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) – and named for state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, currently the longest-serving member of the Georgia General Assembly.

“The collaboration involving Morehouse School of Medicine, Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta represents a powerful force to move us closer to the day when people no longer suffer from sickle cell disease,” said GRA President Susan Shows.

“Sickle cell disease impacts over 100,000 people in the U.S every year, predominantly in the African American community,” Gov. Kemp said. “The good news is researchers and clinicians here in Georgia know how to tackle some of the most challenging problems facing humankind.”

The Calvin Smyre GRA Eminent Scholar Chair – a position endowed with public and private funds – is the cornerstone of the new GRA initiative, which proposes funding lab equipment and additional researchers at both MSM and Emory, as well as resources to move discoveries from the university labs to clinics and markets.

“Morehouse School of Medicine stands ready to move the needle on treating a disease that disproportionately affects people of color throughout the world,” said Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, MSM president. “Not only does sickle cell disease bring debilitating illness – it also causes economic devastation through the high cost of treatment and the loss of wages.”

Emory University President Gregory Fenves noted that the university research expertise developed in Georgia over the past several decades has prepared the state to attract more funding for advancing understanding of the disease and developing new treatments.

“Atlanta and Georgia are global leaders in medical research, and the collective strength of our universities positions the state to lead the fight against sickle cell disease,” Fenves said. “Emory and our fellow Georgia universities have the innovative ideas to improve the lives of the 8,000 Georgians with SCD by developing lasting cures that will also benefit generations to come.”

A key factor in the GRA initiative is Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, home to the largest pediatric SCD program in the nation. While SCD affects both children and adults, CHOA brings an invaluable clinical asset in the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, which offers a robust portfolio of prevention, treatment and follow-up care for pediatric SCD.

“The Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is a national leader in research and treatment of sickle cell disease, treating the largest number of patients in the country,” said Donna Hyland, president and CEO of CHOA. “We also are home to the largest bone marrow transplant (BMT) program in the country and have treated more than 116 children with sickle cell disease through bone marrow transplantation. We are thrilled to work with our partners at Emory and Morehouse School of Medicine to recruit a national leader in sickle cell disease to Atlanta.”

GRA regards its five-year initiative as a strong foothold in tackling sickle cell disease in a coordinated way. “Strengthening the foundation to attract future scientific talent and funding is what we do best,” Shows said. “The five-year horizon allows clinicians and scientists to create the essential framework for new activities as well as develop relationships to amplify advocacy for patients and their families.” 

In naming the Eminent Scholar chair for Rep. Smyre, GRA and partners chose to honor a man whose professional and civic contributions span decades. The retired Synovus executive vice president is a current trustee for Morehouse School of Medicine and chairs the Fort Valley State University Foundation. He earned a B.S. in business administration from Fort Valley State.

“I can’t think of a better namesake for the new research chair than my good friend and ‘Dean of the House,’ Rep. Smyre,” Gov. Kemp said.