Medicine: Detecting an Old Killer

Historically, sickle-cell anemia has been an unheralded killer. It does not occur in dramatic epidemics. Its victims in the U.S. are mostly blacks, and they generally receive less medical attention than whites. The malady affects the red blood cells, which normally are spherical. When the anemia victim is under any stress that reduces the oxygen supply in his blood, his red cells elongate into firm gel-like crescents ("sickles") that block narrow capillaries and deprive tissues of vital oxygen.

The cause of the disease is a gene mutation that occurred centuries ago in Africa....

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