Sickle cell researcher Buchanan to give President's Lecture

By Aline McKenzie 

Early in his career at Harvard University, Dr. George Buchanan was rebuffed when he asked an obvious question: “Why aren’t children with sickle cell disease being given penicillin to prevent infection?”

Children with sickle cell disease are at high risk for fatal infections because of their malfunc­tioning spleens. Children with other conditions who had had their spleens removed received daily penicillin as a preventive.

So, he asked his question.

Dr. George Buchanan

“I was flatly told, ‘We don’t do that,’ or ‘There’s no proof that it works,’” he said. “It sort of annoyed me.”

When he came to UT Southwestern in 1977, one of the first things Dr. Buchanan did was set up a clinic for children with sickle cell disease, including a regimen of penicillin.

A few years later, a national randomized study proved the effectiveness of prophylactic penicillin.

“We were 10 years ahead of most of the rest of the United States in this,” Dr. Buchanan said.

In a talk titled “Sickle Cell Disease: 100 Years of Progress,” Dr. Buchanan will discuss the journey of understanding and treating the disease since it was first identified in a 1910 medical journal article. The talk is the 14th address in the President’s Lecture Series, to be held Tuesday, March 16, at 4 p.m. in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium on the South Campus. Overflow seating will be available in the lecture halls below the Eugene McDermott Plaza.

The President’s Lecture Series provides an opportunity for the employees of UT Southwest­ern to learn more about the ongoing research and clinical advances of some of the medical center’s most accomplished scientists and physicians. Three times each academic year, leading faculty experts discuss in nontechnical language the basics of their research and clinical programs and their broad implications for health and medicine.

Dr. Buchanan came to UT Southwestern when his wife was offered a position at Southern Methodist University.

“My colleagues in Boston thought I was crazy to consider coming to Dallas instead of staying at the ‘Mecca,’” he said “But one size does not fit all. UT Southwestern allowed me to develop a career going off in my own direction, which I wouldn’t have been able to have at Harvard.

“I’m a generalist. I do lots of different things.”

Dr. Buchanan is professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric hematology-oncology at 
UT Southwestern. He holds the Children’s Cancer Fund Distinguished Chair in Pediatric Oncology and Hematology and is director of the Barrett Family Center for Pediatric Oncology. He also is medical director of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Medical Center Dallas.

His awards include the 2007 Distinguished Career Award from the American Society of Pedi­atric Hematology-Oncology and the 2008 Men­tor­ing Award in Clinical Research from the American Society of Hematology.

The sickle cell program he established in Dallas has become one of the most distinguished in the world, focusing on clinical care and patient-oriented research. Its team of faculty, fellows, and administrative, clinical, and research support staff has seen more than 600 patients in the last two years in addition to conducting research that has led to numerous grants from the National Insti­tutes of Health and more than 80 publications. This research has led to strategies to prevent and treat life-threatening infection, stroke, pulmonary complications and pain.

Dr. Buchanan also played a key role in Texas becoming the third state to test babies for sickle cell disease at birth.

A native of St. Louis, he credits his curiosity and somewhat compulsive interests in a variety of topics for his success. As a child, he intensely pursued hobbies such as butterfly-catching and collecting baseball cards. At one point, he had more than 7,000 cards, including eight prized 1953 Stan Musial cards. In high school, he became a fanatical shortwave radio listener. He acquired QSL cards — postcards traded among listeners to confirm a connection — from more than 170 countries.

In college, Dr. Buchanan had considered both pre-med and bench research but was finally steered toward medicine by his family dentist.

“He said that being tied to a bench would hem me in too much,” he said. “As a doctor, I could branch out in any direction and have a job wherever I went.”

In medical school at the University of Chicago, he developed an interest in pediatric hematology from a “wonderful elderly lady” in the field. He became especially fascinated by blood disorders, including cancers, bleeding disorders and sickle cell disease. He has become a noted expert in these areas, with nearly 300 publications in peer-reviewed journals.

Sickle cell disease strikes primarily people of African heritage. It is caused by a genetic mutation that affects the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. A single copy of the gene protects against malaria, but inheriting two copies leads to sickle cell disease. Blood cells become curved and stiff, clogging blood vessels and causing excru­ciating pain, among other problems.

Until recently, most children with the disease died young of infection. Now, 95 percent survive to age 18.

This success marks a watershed in sickle cell treatment, Dr. Buchanan said. Doctors of adult patients, unused to treating sickle cell disease, now find themselves treating a once-fatal childhood disease that can now be considered a chronic, manageable illness.

“They’ll have to learn how to care for them,” he said.