The major hemoglobin that is present in adults is hemoglobin A (HbA). This is a heterotetramer that consists of one pair of alpha-globin chains and one pair of beta-globin chains. Alpha-globin chains are encoded by two copies of the alpha gene present on chromosome 16. Beta-globin chains are driven by one gene on chromosome 11. Normally there is tight regulation of the production of alpha and beta-globin chains and the ratio of production, but sometimes that regulation can be interrupted. This offsets the balance of globin chains being produced. These types of hematological disorders are coined thalassemias. They are a quantitative defect characterized by reduced or absent production of one and rarely two of the globin chains.
Alpha thalassemia is largely due to the inadequate production of alpha globin chains, which leads to an excessive production of either gamma-globin chains or beta-globin chains. In the fetus alpha thalassemia leads to excess gamma chains and in adults it largely leads to excess beta chains. In neonates the absence of alpha-globin chains is incompatible with life, leading to hydrops fetalis or hemoglobin Barts and absolute death after delivery. Hb Barts cannot deliver the oxygen to the tissues because its affinity to oxygen is too high. The hydronic state is reflected in the fetus by heart failure and massive total body edema. Excess beta-globin chains are capable of forming homotetramers and precipitate that leads to a variety of clinical manifestations.
Beta thalassemia is an inherited hemoglobinopathy in which production of beta-globin chains is impaired. There are different classifications corresponding to the degree of reduction in the beta chains. Beta thalassemia major is due to mutations that completely stop all production of beta-globin chains. These are individuals who are homozygous for the disease. They lose the ability to make HbA and because of this will experience severe manifestations and are transfusion-dependent for the rest of life. Symptoms typically begin during late infancy (6-12 months), but some newborns are asymptomatic because the major hemoglobin in newborns is HbF (4A:4G) which is constructed by gamma-globin chains and not beta-globin chains. Beta-thalassemia major presents with pallor, jaundice, and bilirubin in the urine which indicates hemolysis. Hepatosplenomegaly is present as well as heart failure. Failure to thrive and recurrent infections are also other signs. There is so much hemolysis because of the faulty hemoglobin present in the red cells that the bone marrow can’t keep up with production so extra medullary hematopoiesis occurs that results in skeletal abnormalities in the face and long bones. Iron overload is often a symptom of late untreated disease which can affect almost every organ in the body. Mortality is upwards of 85% by age five if untreated. If treated the survival rate is only 60 years of age if lucky.
Beta thalassemia major is also called transfusion-dependent beta thalassemia. There is also a subtype called non-transfusion-dependent beta thalassemia otherwise known as beta thalassemia intermedia. These individuals present with a less severe phenotype of the disease. There is significant variability with the clinical findings in individuals with beta thalassemia intermedia; from osteoporosis to thrombosis to diabetes mellitus. Some individuals will develop hepatosplenomegaly and extramedullary hematopoiesis and some won’t. Also some individuals will have to become transfusion-dependent, but that is typically in the late decades of life.
Anemia is a severe clinical manifestation of both alpha and beta thalassemia. The pathophysiology of beta thalassemia causes excess alpha-globin chains to precipitate in the developing erythrocytes in the bone marrow. This causes inclusion bodies. The inclusion bodies create oxidative stress and damages the cellular membranes. Apoptosis gets activated downstream and the red cell precursors are subsequently phagocytized and destroyed in the bone marrow by activated macrophages. This is also called ineffective erythropoiesis. The bone marrow in an effort to compensate releases these red cell precursors into the peripheral blood riddled with these inclusion bodies. These cells are subsequently sequestered by extravascular hemolysis by the RES which further contributes to the anemia. The red cells that survive are microcytic and hypochromic and have a significantly shortened life span. Severe tissue hypoxia is seen due to the increased HbF as a compensatory mechanism. HbF has an increased affinity for oxygen and causes a shift to the left on the oxygen dissociation curve.
Typical laboratory findings for an individual with beta thalassemia is a slightly decreased red cell count and a marked decrease in hemoglobin of usually about 2-3 g/dL (12.5-16.5 g/dL). There will be marked anisocytosis (microcytosis) and poikilocytosis, target cells, basophilic stippling, slight increase in reticulocytes and nucleated red cells.
The pathophysiology for anemia associated with alpha thalassemia is associated with precipitation of HbH. Remember HbH is formed when there is decreased production of the alpha-globin chains so there is an excess of beta-globin chains. The precipitation of HbH creates inclusion bodies, typically called Heinz Bodies. These inclusions are recognized by the RES and remove the red cells via extravascular hemolysis.
Laboratory findings for an individual with alpha thalassemia is very similar to that of an individual with beta thalassemia. Decreased hemoglobin, marked anisocytosis (microcytosis) and poikilocytosis, target cells, basophilic stippling, and reticulocytes and NRBCs. The HbH inclusions can be see seen using a cresyl blue stain.
Thalassemias are a quantitative hemoglobinopathy meaning that there is a deficiency or an excess of production of globin chains leading to clinical manifestations. They are inherited and some subtypes can significantly elevate mortality. It is important to diagnose early and to treat early.