Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation for Thalassemia Major and Sickle Cell Anemia

Number: 0626


Aetna considers allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation medically necessary for the treatment of thalassemia major (i.e., homozygous beta-thalassemia) in children or young adults when the member meets transplanting institution's written eligibility criteria.  In the absence of such criteria, Aetna considers allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation medically necessary for the treatment of thalassemia major (i.e., homozygous beta-thalassemia) in children or young adults with:

  1. an HLA-matched donor.

Aetna considers allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation medically necessary for the treatment of sickle cell anemia in children or young adults when the member meets transplanting institution's written eligibility criteria.  In the absence of such criteria, Aetna considers allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation medically necessary for the treatment of sickle cell anemia in children or young adults when both of the following criteria are met:

  1. Members have an HLA-matched donor; and
  2. Members with either a history of stroke or at increased risk of stroke or end-organ damage (see Note below).

Aetna considers autologous hematopoietic cell transplantation for thalassemia major or sickle cell anemia in children or young adults experimental and investigational due to insufficient evidence in the peer-reviewed literature.

Note: Factors associated with increased risk of stroke or end-organ damage include recurrent chest syndrome, recurrent vaso-occlusive crises, and red blood cell alloimmunization on chronic transfusion therapy.

Note: Requests for allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation for thalassemia major or for sickle cell anemia in older adults should be forwarded to the National Medical Excellence (NME) unit for review.



Thalassemia is a congenital hemolytic disease that entails a group of disorders of hemoglobin metabolism. It is caused by a partial or complete deficiency of alpha- or beta-globin chain synthesis. Clinical severity ranges from minimal in individuals who are heterozygous carriers of the trait for alpha-thalassemia (i.e., thalassemia minor) to fatal anemia or fatal sequelae of cardiac iron deposits in homozygous beta-thalassemia (i.e., thalassemia major). Conventional treatments for thalassemia include transfusions, splenectomy, and use of medications that increase mobilization and excretion of iron deposits.

Although transfusions and regular iron chelation by means of deferasirox (Exjade) or deferoxamine (Desferal) can extend life expectancy, they are not curative and the disease will be eventually fatal. Allogeneic bone marrow transplant has been introduced as a therapeutic option for patients with thalassemia major. Outcomes following transplantation from HLA-matched donors are influenced by the presence of risk factors such as hepatomegaly, portal fibrosis, and ineffective chelation therapy prior to transplantation. Children without any of these risk factors have survival and disease-free survival rates of greater than 90 % 3 years after transplantation. On the other hand, for patients with all 3 risk factors, and in most adults, the rates are about 60 %. A recent study (Mentzer and Cowan, 2000) reported that for children with beta-thalassemia major or hemoglobin E/beta-thalassemia who received allogeneic HLA-matched family donor stem cell transplants, the overall survival and event-free survival rates were 94 % and 71%, respectively.

There is evidence for the effectiveness of bone marrow transplantation for sickle cell anemia and thalassemia using unrelated donors. Hongeng et al (2006) stated that recently published reports indicate that the outcome of unrelated donor transplantations in patients with leukemia is currently comparable to that of transplantation from identical family donors. These investigators examined the possibly favorable outcomes of related and unrelated transplantation in children with severe thalassemia. They reviewed transplantation outcome in 49 consecutive children with severe thalassemia who underwent allogeneic stem cell transplantation with related-donor (n = 28) and unrelated-donor (n = 21) stem cells. Analysis of engraftment, frequency of procedure-related complications, and thalassemia-free survival showed no advantage from use of related-donor stem cells. The 2-year thalassemia-free survival estimate for recipients of related-donor stem cells was 82 % compared with 71 % in the unrelated-donor stem cell group (p = 0.42). This study provided evidence to support the view that it is quite reasonable to consider unrelated-donor stem cell transplantation an acceptable therapeutic approach in severe thalassemia, at least for patients who are not fully compliant with conventional treatment and do not yet show irreversible severe complications of iron overload.

Feng et al (2006) reported unrelated bone marrow tranplantatation (BMT) in 9 thalassemic children using a high-resolution HLA typing technique to identify donors. HLA mismatches between donors and recipients were 0, 1 and 2 in 2, 5 and 2 cases, respectively. The results showed that white blood cells, platelets and hemoglobin all returned to normal at various time points, and blood transfusion was eliminated from 13 to 62 days after transplantation. Full engraftment was achieved in 8 patients while ABO blood types were replaced with that of donors in 5 of the 6 ABO mismatched recipients. Acute skin graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) was found in 7 patients and acute liver GVHD in 1. One patient with acute intestinal GVHD eventually developed chronic GVHD. One patient died of pulmonary hemorrhage in spite of having a fully functional graft. The authors concluded that this is the first successful application of unrelated BMT for thalassemia major in Chinese people and that the results will certainly expand donor resources and greatly enhance the survival and quality of life of thalassemic patients.

Sickle Cell Anemia:

Sickle cell anemia accounts for 60 to 70 % of sickle cell disease in the United States, affecting 1 out of 600 African-Americans. It afflicts more than 50,000 individuals in this country.

The sickle cell mutation is responsible for increased rigidity and adherence of red blood cells, resulting in the hallmark features of chronic hemolytic anemia as well as both acute and chronic hemolytic anemia and tissue injury. The clinical presentation of patients with homozygous sickle cell disease can vary from an asymptomatic course or relative states of well being with periodic crises to severe and rapid progression to end-stage disease of the brain, kidneys, and lungs. Vaso-occlusive crisis is the commonest form of acute morbidity and the most frequent cause for hospitalization among patients with sickle cell disease. Symptoms vary from mild to excruciating pain, with fever and leukocytosis, and may simulate a life-threatening event or progress to one.

Chronic transfusion is considered standard treatment of severe complications of sickle cell disease. Another approach is the administration of cytotoxic agents such as hydroxyurea (Droxia, Hydrea). Hydroxyurea increases the production of fetal hemoglobin by stimulating erythropoiesis in more primitive erythroid precursors. Although hydroxyurea has been demonstrated to lower the frequency of painful crises, no effect on stroke recurrence has been shown. Chronic transfusion and hydroxyurea are both palliative, while allogeneic bone marrow or peripheral stem cell transplant is currently the only potentially curative therapy.

Mentzer (2000) reported that in patients with hemoglobinopathy who were treated by allogeneic matched sibling bone marrow transplantation before the onset of disease-associated organ damage, long-term, disease-free survival rate was approximately 90 %, and transplant-associated mortality was 5 % or less. This is in agreement with the findings of Walters and colleagues (2000) who monitored 26 children a median 57.9 months following allogeneic stem cell transplant. These patients had survival and event-free survival rates of 94 % and 84 %, respectively. Furthermore, 22 of the 26 patients experienced complete resolution of complications of sickle cell disease, and none experienced further pain episodes, stroke, or acute chest syndrome. The authors concluded that these findings confirm that allogeneic bone marrow transplant establishes normal erythropoiesis and is associated with improved growth and stable central nervous system imaging and pulmonary function in most patients.

Hsieh and colleagues (2009) performed non-myeloablative stem-cell transplantation in adults with sickle cell disease. A total of 10 adults (age range of 16 to 45 years) with severe sickle cell disease underwent non-myeloablative transplantation with CD34+ peripheral-blood stem cells, mobilized by granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF), which were obtained from HLA-matched siblings. Patients received 300 cGy of total-body irradiation plus alemtuzumab before transplantation, and sirolimus was administered afterward. All 10 patients were alive at a median follow-up of 30 months after transplantation (range of 15 to 54 months). Nine patients had long-term, stable donor lympho-hematopoietic engraftment at levels that sufficed to reverse the sickle cell disease phenotype. Mean (+/- SE) donor-recipient chimerism for T cells (CD3+) and myeloid cells (CD14+15+) was 53.3 +/- 8.6 % and 83.3 +/- 10.3 %, respectively, in the 9 patients whose grafts were successful. Hemoglobin values before transplantation and at the last follow-up assessment were 9.0 +/- 0.3 and 12.6 +/- 0.5 g/dL, respectively. Serious adverse events included the narcotic-withdrawal syndrome and sirolimus-associated pneumonitis and arthralgia. Neither acute nor chronic GVHD developed in any patient. The authors concluded that a protocol for non-myeloablative allogeneic hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation that includes total-body irradiation and treatment with alemtuzumab and sirolimus can achieve stable, mixed donor-recipient chimerism and reverse the sickle cell phenotype in adult patients.

Sadelain et al (2008) reported that “the beta-thalassemias and sickle cell anemia are severe congenital anemias for which there is presently no curative therapy other than allogeneic bone marrow transplantation.”  The authors further noted, however, that this therapeutic option is only available to patients with an HLA-matched bone marrow donor. Thus, they describe emerging modalities based on cell engineering which offer new options for curative approaches, including transfer of a regulated globin gene in autologous hematopoetic stem cells. However, this strategy raises challenges in controlling transgene expression and several groups have reported that lentiviral vectors encode slightly different combinations of proximal and distal transcriptional control elements of the normal human beta-globin genem, permitting lineage-specific and elevated beta-globin expression in-vivo in animal studies. These advances are encouraging for the future use of curative autologous hematopoietic cell-based therapies.

Sadelain et al (2010) described the initiation of an ongoing multicenter phase I clinical trial designed to evaluate globin gene transfer in adult beta-thalassemia patients. This clinical trial, which is currently underway, uses a reduced intensity conditioning regimen. The investigators' protocol involves transfer of their globin lentiviral vectors in a clinically relevant dosage (averaging 0.8 vector copy per cell in bulk CD34+ cells). The goal of this trial is to use G-CSF mobilized, autologous CD34 (+) cells transduced with a vector similar to the original TNS9 vector.

CPT Codes / HCPCS Codes / ICD-9 Codes
CPT codes covered if selection criteria are met:
38205 Blood-derived hematopoietic cell harvesting for transplantation, per collection; allogeneic
38230 Bone marrow harvesting for transplantation; allogenic
38240 Hematopoietic progenitor cell (HPC); allogeneic transplantation per donor
86813 HLA typing; A, B or C multiple antigens
86817     DR/DQ, multiple antigens
86821     lymphocyte culture, mixed (MCL)
86822     lymphocyte culture, primed (PLC)
CPT codes not covered for indications listed in CPB:
38206 Blood-derived hematopoietic cell harvesting for transplantation, per collection; autologous
38232 Bone marrow harvesting for transplantation; autologous
38241 Hematopoietic progenitor cell (HPC); autologous transplantation
Other CPT codes related to the CPB:
38206 - 38215 Transplant preparation procedures
86813 HLA typing; A, B, or C, multiple antigens
86817 HLA typing; DR/DQ, multiple antigens
86821 - 86822 HLA typing; lymphocyte culture
86920 - 86923 Compatibility test each unit
96401 - 96450 Chemotherapy administration
HCPCS codes covered if selection criteria are met:
S2150 Bone marrow or blood-derived stem-cells (peripheral or umbilical), allogeneic or autologous, harvesting, transplantation, and related complications; including pheresis and cell preparation/storage; marrow ablative therapy; drugs, supplies, hospitalization with outpatient follow-up; medical/surgical, diagnostic, emergency, and rehabilitative services; and the number of days pre-and post-transplant care in the global definition
Other HCPCS codes related to the CPB:
J0895 Injection, deferoxamine mesylate, 500 mg
J9000 - J9999 Chemotherapy drugs
Q0083 - Q0085 Chemotherapy administration
ICD-9 codes covered if selection criteria are met:
282.44 Beta thalassemia
282.60 - 282.69 Sickle-cell disease

The above policy is based on the following references:

    Thalassemia Major:

    1. Sullivan KM, Anasetti C, Horowitz M, et al. Unrelated and HLA-nonidentical related donor marrow transplantation for thalassemia and leukemia. A combined report from the Seattle Marrow Transplant Team and the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry. Ann NY Acad Sci. 1998;850:312-324.
    2. Giardini C, Lucarelli G. Bone marrow transplantation for beta-thalassemia. Hematol Oncol Clin North Am. 1999;13(5):1059-1064, viii.
    3. Olivieri NF. The beta-thalassemias. N Engl J Med. 1999;341(2):99-109.
    4. Lucarelli G, Clift RA, Galimberti M, et al. Bone marrow transplantation in adult thalassemic patients. Blood. 1999;93(4):1164-1167.
    5. Mentzer WC, Cowan MJ. Bone marrow transplantation for beta-thalassemia: The University of California San Francisco experience. J Pediatr Hematol Oncol. 2000;22(6):598-601.
    6. Yesilipek MA, Hazar V, Kupesiz A, et al. Peripheral blood stem cell transplantation in children with beta-thalassemia. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2001;28(11):1037-1040.
    7. Lucarelli G, Andreani M, Angelucci E. The cure of the thalassemia with bone marrow transplantation. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2001;28(Suppl 1):S11-S13.
    8. Gaziev J, Lucarelli G. Stem cell transplantation for hemoglobinopathies. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2003;15(1):24-31.
    9. Locatelli F, Rocha V, Reed W, et al. Related umbilical cord blood transplantation in patients with thalassemia and sickle cell disease. Blood. 2003;101(6):2137-2143.
    10. Lawson SE, Roberts IA, Amrolia P, et al. Bone marrow transplantation for beta-thalassaemia major: The UK experience in two paediatric centres. Br J Haematol. 2003;120(2):289-295.
    11. Gaziev J, Lucarelli G. Stem cell transplantation for thalassaemia. Reprod Biomed Online. 2005;10(1):111-115.
    12. Malaysian Health Technology Assessment Unit (MHTAU). Management of thalassaemia. Report. MOH/PAK/77.03 (TR). Kuala Lumpur, Malasia: MHTAU; 2003.
    13. Zhu KE, Gu J, Zhang T. Allogeneic stem cell transplantation from unrelated donor for class 3 beta-thalassemia major using reduced-intensity conditioning regimen. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2006;37(1):111-112.
    14. Feng Z, Sun E, Lan H, et al. Unrelated donor bone marrow transplantation for beta-thalassemia major: An experience from China. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2006;37(2):171-174.
    15. Hongeng S, Pakakasama S, Chuansumrit A, et al. Outcomes of transplantation with related- and unrelated-donor stem cells in children with severe thalassemia. Biol Blood Marrow Transplant. 2006;12(6):683-687.
    16. Bhatia M, Walters MC. Hematopoietic cell transplantation for thalassemia and sickle cell disease: Past, present and future. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2008;41(2):109-117. 
    17. Barton JC. Chelation therapy for iron overload. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2007;9(1):74-82.
    18. Cao A, Galanello R. Beta-thalassemia. Genet Med. 2010;12(2):61-76.
    19. Gaziev J, Paba P, Miano R, et al. Late-onset hemorrhagic cystitis in children after hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for thalassemia and sickle cell anemia: A prospective evaluation of polyoma (BK) virus infection and treatment with cidofovir. Biol Blood Marrow Transplant. 2010;16(5):662-671.
    20. Yesilipek MA, Karasu G, Kazik M, et al. Posttransplant oral iron-chelating therapy in patients with beta-thalassemia major. Pediatr Hematol Oncol. 2010;27(5):374-379.
    21. Jagannath VA, Fedorowicz Z, Al Hajeri A, et al. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for people with ß-thalassaemia major. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(10):CD008708.

    Sickle Cell Anemia:

    1. Johnson FL, Mentzer WC, Kalinyak KA, et al. Bone marrow transplantation for sickle cell disease. The United States experience. Am J Pediatr Hematol Oncol. 1994;16(1):22-26.
    2. Reed W, Vichinsky EP. New considerations in the treatment of sickle cell disease. Annu Rev Med. 1998;49:461-474.
    3. Steinberg MH. Management of sickle cell disease. N Engl J Med. 1999;340(13):1021-1030.
    4. Walters MC, Storb R, Patience M, et al. Impact of bone marrow transplantation for symptomatic sickle cell disease: An interim report. Multicenter investigation of bone marrow transplantation for sickle cell disease. Blood. 2000;95(6):1918-1924.
    5. Mentzer WC. Bone marrow transplantation for hemoglobinopathies. Curr Opin Hematol. 2000;7(2):95-100.
    6. Steen RG, Helton KJ, Horwitz EM, et al. Improved cerebrovascular patency following therapy in patients with sickle cell disease: Initial results in 4 patients who received HLA-identical hematopoietic stem cell allografts. Ann Neurol. 2001;49(2):222-229.
    7. Hoppe CC, Walters MC. Bone marrow transplantation in sickle cell anemia. Curr Opin Oncol. 2001;13(2):85-90.
    8. Amrolia PJ, Almeida A, Halsey C, et al. Therapeutic challenges in childhood sickle cell disease. Part 1: Current and future treatment options. Br J Haematol. 2003;120(5):725-736.
    9. Amrolia PJ, Almeida A, Davies SC, Roberts IA. Therapeutic challenges in childhood sickle cell disease. Part 2: A problem-orientated approach. Br J Haematol. 2003;120(5):737-743.
    10. Vermylen C. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation in sickle cell disease. Blood Rev. 2003;17(3):163-166.
    11. Atkins RC, Walters MC. Haematopoietic cell transplantation in the treatment of sickle cell disease. Expert Opin Biol Ther. 2003;3(8):1215-1224.
    12. Iannone R, Ohene-Frempong K, Fuchs EJ, et al. Bone marrow transplantation for sickle cell anemia: Progress and prospects. Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2005;44(5):436-440.
    13. Mazur M, Kurtzberg J, Halperin E, et al. Transplantation of a child with sickle cell anemia with an unrelated cord blood unit after reduced intensity conditioning. J Pediatr Hematol Oncol. 2006;28(12):840-844.
    14. Panepinto JA, Walters MC, Carreras J, et al; Non-Malignant Marrow Disorders Working Committee, Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. Matched-related donor transplantation for sickle cell disease: Report from the Center for International Blood and Transplant Research. Br J Haematol. 2007;137(5):479-485.
    15. Krishnamurti L, Bunn HF, Williams AM, Tolar J. Hematopoietic cell transplantation for hemoglobinopathies. Curr Probl Pediatr Adolesc Health Care. 2008;38(1):6-18.
    16. McLeod C, Fleeman N, Kirkham J, et al. Deferasirox for the treatment of iron overload associated with regular blood transfusions (transfusional haemosiderosis) in patients suffering with chronic anaemia: A systematic review and economic evaluation. Health Technol Assess. 2009;13(1):iii-iv, ix-xi, 1-121.
    17. Oringanje C, Nemecek E, Oniyangi O. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for children with sickle cell disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(1):CD007001.
    18. Hsieh MM, Kang EM, Fitzhugh CD, et al. Allogeneic hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation for sickle cell disease. N Engl J Med. 2009;361(24):2309-2317.
    19. Walters MC, Hardy K, Edwards S, et al; Multicenter Study of Bone Marrow Transplantation for Sickle Cell Disease. Pulmonary, gonadal, and central nervous system status after bone marrow transplantation for sickle cell disease. Biol Blood Marrow Transplant. 2010;16(2):263-272.
    20. McPherson ME, Hutcherson D, Olson E, et al. Safety and efficacy of targeted busulfan therapy in children undergoing myeloablative matched sibling donor BMT for sickle cell disease. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2011;46(1):27-33.
    21. Lucarelli G, Isgrò A, Sodani P, Gaziev J. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation in thalassemia and sickle cell anemia. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2012;2(5):a011825.
    22. Freed J, Talano J, Small T, et al. Allogeneic cellular and autologous stem cell therapy for sickle cell disease: 'Whom, when and how'. Bone Marrow Transplant. 2012;47(12):1489-1498.
    23. Dalle JH. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation in SCD. C R Biol. 2013;336(3):148-151.
    24. Locatelli F, Kabbara N, Ruggeri A, et al. Outcome of patients with hemoglobinopathies given either cord blood or bone marrow transplantation from an HLA-identical sibling. Blood. 2013;122(6):1072-1078.
    25. Sadelain M, Boulad F, Lisowki L, et al. Stem cell engineering for the treatment of severe hemoglobinopathies. Curr Mol Med. 2008;8(7):690-697.
    26. Sadelain M, Rivière I, Wang X, et al. Strategy for a multicenter phase I clinical trial to evaluate globin gene transfer in beta-thalassemia. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2010;1202:52-58.
    27. Hladun R, Elorza I, Olive T, et al. Results of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation in hemoglobinopathies: Thalassemia major and sickle cell disease. An Pediatr (Barc). 2013;79(2):75-82.
    28. Angelucci E, Matthes-Martin S, Baronciani D, et al; EBMT Inborn Error and EBMT Paediatric Working Parties. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation in thalassemia major and sickle cell disease: Indications and management recommendations from an international expert panel. Haematologica. 2014;99(5):811-820.

You are now leaving the Aetna website.

Links to various non-Aetna sites are provided for your convenience only. Aetna Inc. and its subsidiary companies are not responsible or liable for the content, accuracy, or privacy practices of linked sites, or for products or services described on these sites.

Continue >