In severe cases, patients cannot carry enough oxygen to the body through their blood and are susceptible to chronic pain, strokes, and premature death, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston.
Doctors never found a cure until they tried the experimental therapy on 12-year-old Keone in Atlanta.
Cord blood contains stem cells, the building blocks of the body's blood-making system. Cord blood is extracted from the umbilical cord and placenta at childbirth.
Cord blood transplants are especially promising for treating blood diseases like severe anemias or leukemia because it's easier for doctors to match the immature cord stem cells of donors to unrelated patients. Finding two unrelated people with matching bone marrow cells is extremely difficult.
"A half match or a full match or a partially matched unit can in many cases take hold and form a new blood cell factory," says Dr Andrew Jaeger of Eglestone Hospital.
In order for Keone to receive a cord blood transplant, doctors had to kill his own blood-making system with chemotherapy, which burned his skin and eliminated his immune system. If the transplant had not taken place, Keone could have been left without a way to make blood.
"This has been a very hard thing, I won't tell anybody it's been easy," says Leslie Penn, Keone's mother.
She let him make the final decision to go through with this promising but painful transplant. Being a normal 12-year-old boy was what Keone wanted more than anything, she says.
"My dreams already happening...me getting cured...that's all it is, me getting cured," says Keone.
Doctors are encouraged that Keone's cure may become a viable dream for other people with sickle cell anemia. His new blood-making system still needs time to take root, but so far he has shown no signs of sickle cell anemia since the transplant was performed.