Ryan Clark lost his spleen, his gallbladder and 35 pounds. The Pittsburgh Steelers safety also lost the rest of the 2007 season after enduring grave pain in his left side and required surgery after playing in the high altitude of Denver. He lost a sister-in-law to the same gene that afflicted his red-blood cells. Now one of his children, like the father, also carries the sickle cell trait.
This personal history with the sickle cell gene and disease motivated one of the NFL's most outspoken players to take a stand.
Mr. Clark today announced he is launching Ryan Clark's Cure League in partnership with UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh's Vascular Medicine Institute, and the Institute for Transfusion Medicine, where former Pitt and Chicago Bears standout Jim Covert is CEO. This initiative aims to raise awareness, donations and support that will enable Pitt research to drive better care and ultimately find a cure for this inherited blood disorder – one that involves agonizing pain, sometimes requires transfusions and is potentially fatal.
Not since the late Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer Willie Stargell shuttered his foundation nearly 30 years ago has a Pittsburgh professional athlete, much less a nationally recognized pro, lent his or her name and efforts to this cause.
The Cure League today formally launches its website, www.CureLeague.org, where it hosts videos and information, plus the ability to donate and help. There also is a devoted Twitter feed, @CureLeague, where sickle cell sufferers, Steelers fans and interested parties are invited to join the conversation, using #CureLeague and #TeamSickleCell hashtags. More events and information will follow.
"We have only one drug, one FDA-approved drug for sickle cell disease," said Mr. Clark, an 11th-year safety and team leader from Louisiana State University and New Orleans. "We're going to dedicate our efforts solely to sickle cell research and patient care. We're hoping we can be the pioneers here."
An estimated 2 million Americans carry one copy of the sickle cell gene. One of every 500 African-American births and one of every 36,000 Spanish-American births carry the trait, like Clark. Sickle cell disease is caused by inheriting two copies of the gene, and encompasses a group of inherited blood disorders that affect people of African ancestry, as well as those of Hispanic, Mediterranean (such as Greek and Italian), Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent. More than 70,000 Americans have the disease, which causes severe pain and stroke in children. Millions of people worldwide suffer from sickle cell disease, which causes anemia or pain and other symptoms.
"This is a unique opportunity for Ryan, our patients, blood banks, university researchers and the greater community to band together in a strong alliance – in one league – with focused goals," said Mark Gladwin, M.D., director of the Vascular Medicine Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, which will support the research and patient care for the Cure League. "Those goals are to raise awareness about sickle cell disease and the importance of discovering new treatments and an ultimate cure."