Background: In a previous open-label study of hydroxyurea therapy, the synthesis of fetal hemoglobin increased in most patients with sickle cell anemia, with only mild myelotoxicity. By inhibiting sickling, increased levels of fetal hemoglobin might decrease the frequency of painful crises.
Methods: In a double-blind, randomized clinical trial, we tested the efficacy of hydroxyurea in reducing the frequency of painful crises in adults with a history of three or more such crises per year. The trial was stopped after a mean follow-up of 21 months.
Results: Among 148 men and 151 women studied at 21 clinics, the 152 patients assigned to hydroxyurea treatment had lower annual rates of crises than the 147 patients given placebo (median, 2.5 vs. 4.5 crises per year, P < 0.001). The median times to the first crisis (3.0 vs. 1.5 months, P = 0.01) and the second crisis (8.8 vs. 4.6 months, P < 0.001) were longer with hydroxyurea treatment. Fewer patients assigned to hydroxyurea had chest syndrome (25 vs. 51, P < 0.001), and fewer underwent transfusions (48 vs. 73, P = 0.001). At the end of the study, the doses of hydroxyurea ranged from 0 to 35 mg per kilogram of body weight per day. Treatment with hydroxyurea did not cause any important adverse effects.
Conclusions: Hydroxyurea therapy can ameliorate the clinical course of sickle cell anemia in some adults with three or more painful crises per year. Maximal tolerated doses of hydroxyurea may not be necessary to achieve a therapeutic effect. The beneficial effects of hydroxyurea do not become manifest for several months, and its use must be carefully monitored. The long-term safety of hydroxyurea in patients with sickle cell anemia is uncertain.