Thalassemia describes a group of inherited disorders characterized by reduced or absent amounts of hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein inside the red blood cells. There are two basic groups of thalassemia disorders: alpha thalassemia and beta thalassemia. These conditions cause varying degrees of anemia, which can range from insignificant to life threatening.
All types of thalassemias are considered quantitative diseases of hemoglobin, because the quantity of hemoglobin produced is reduced or absent. Usual adult hemoglobin is made up of three components: alpha globin, beta globin, and heme. Thalassemias are classified according to the globin that is affected, hence the names alpha and beta thalassemia. Although both classes of thalassemia affect the same protein, the alpha and beta thalassemias are distinct diseases that affect the body in different ways.
Individuals with beta thalassemia major receive regular blood transfusions, usually on a monthly basis. This helps prevent severe anemia and allows for more normal growth and development. Transfusion therapy does have limitations, however. Individuals can develop reactions to certain proteins in the blood—called a transfusion reaction. This can make locating appropriately matched donor blood more difficult. Although blood supplies in the United States are very safe, particularly relative to the past and other areas of the world, there remains an increased risk of exposure to blood-borne infection such as hepatitis. Additionally, the body is not able to get rid of the excess iron that accompanies each transfusion. An additional medication called desferoxamine is administered, usually five nights per week over a period of several hours using an automatic pump that can be used during sleep or taken anywhere the person goes. This medication is able to bind to the excess iron, which can then be eliminated through urine. If desferoxamine is not used regularly or is unavailable, iron overload can develop and cause tissue damage and organ damage and failure. The heart, liver, and endocrine organs are particularly vulnerable. Desferoxamine itself may rarely produce allergic or toxic side-effects, including hearing damage. Signs of desferoxamine toxicity are screened for and generally develop in individuals who overuse the medication when body iron levels are sufficiently low. Overall, however, transfusion and desferoxamine therapy has increased the life expectancy of individuals with the most severe types of beta thalassemia major to the fourth or fifth decade. This can be expected to improve with time and increased developments in treatment, as well as for those with more mild forms of the disease.
New treatments offer additional options for some individuals with beta thalassemia major. There are various medications that target the production of red blood cells (i.e. erythropoeitin) or fetal hemoglobin (i.e. hydroxyurea and butyrate). Their effectiveness in ameliorating the severity of beta thalassemia is currently being investigated. Another promising new treatment is bone marrow transplantation, in which the bone marrow of an affected individual is replaced with the bone marrow of an unaffected donor. If successful, this treatment can provide a cure. However, there is an approximately 10-15% chance the procedure could be unsuccessful (i.e. the thalassemia returns), result in complications (i.e. graft-versus-host disease), or result in death. The risk for specific individuals depends on current health status, age, and other factors. Because of the risks involved and the fact that beta thalassemia is a treatable condition, transplant physicians require a brother or sister donor who has an identically matched tissue type, called HLA type. HLA type refers to the unique set of proteins present on each individual's cells, which allows the immune system to recognize "self" from "foreign." HLA type is genetically determined, so there is a 25% chance for two siblings to be a match. Transplant physicians and researchers are also investigating ways to improve the safety and effectiveness of bone marrow transplantation. Using newborn sibling umbilical cord blood—the blood from the placenta that is otherwise discarded after birth but contains cells that can go on to make bone marrow—seems to provide a safer and perhaps more effective source of donor cells. Donors and recipients may not have to be perfect HLA matches for a successful transplant using cord blood cells. Trials are also underway to determine the effectiveness of "partial transplants," in which a safer transplant procedure is used to replace only a percentage of the affected individual's bone marrow. Other possible treatments on the horizon may include gene therapy techniques aimed at increasing the amount of normal hemoglobin the body is able to make.
Most individuals have four normal copies of the alpha globin gene, two copies on each chromosome 16. These genes make the alpha globin component of normal adult hemoglobin, which is called hemoglobin A. Alpha globin is also a component of fetal hemoglobin and the other major adult hemoglobin called hemoglobin A2. Mutations of the alpha globin genes are usually deletions of the gene, resulting in absent production of alpha globin. Since there are four genes (instead of the usual two) to consider when looking at alpha globin gene inheritance, there are several alpha globin types that are possible.
Absence of one alpha globin gene leads to a condition known as silent alpha thalassemia trait. This condition causes no health problems and can be detected only by special genetic testing. Alpha thalassemia trait occurs when two alpha globin genes are missing. This can occur in two ways. The genes may be deleted from the same chromosome, causing the 'cis' type of alpha thalassemia trait. Alternately, they may be deleted from different chromosomes, causing the 'trans' type of alpha thalassemia trait. In both instances, there are no associated health problems, although the trait status may be detected by more routine blood screening.
Hemoglobin H disease results from the deletion of three alpha globin genes, such that there is only one functioning gene. Typically, this can occur when one parent carries the silent alpha thalassemia trait, and the other parent carries the 'cis' type of the alpha thalassemia trait. In this situation, there is a 25% chance for hemoglobin H disease in each of such a couple's children.
Hemoglobin H disease-like symptoms can also be a part of a unique condition called alpha thalassemia mental retardation syndrome. Alpha thalassemia mental retardation syndrome can be caused by a deletion of a significant amount of chromosome 16, affecting the alpha globin genes. This is usually not inherited, but rather occurs sporadically in the affected individual. Affected individuals have mild hemoglobin H disease, mild-to-moderate mental retardation, and characteristic facial features. This syndrome can also occur as a sex-linked form in which a mutation is inherited in a particular gene on the X chromosome. This gene influences alpha globin production, as well as various other developmental processes. Individuals affected with this form of the syndrome tend to have more severe mental retardation, delayed development, nearly absent speech, characteristic facial features, and genital-urinary abnormalities.
Alpha thalassemia major results from the deletion of all four alpha globin genes, such that there are no functioning alpha globin genes. This can occur when both parents carry the 'cis' type of the alpha thalassemia trait. In this situation, there is a 25% chance for alpha thalassemia major in each of such a couple's children.
The thalassemias are among the most common genetic diseases worldwide. Both alpha and beta thalassemia have been described in individuals of almost every ancestry, but the conditions are more common among certain ethnic groups. Unaffected carriers of all
Beta thalassemia trait is seen most commonly in people with the following ancestry: Mediterranean (including North African, and particularly Italian and Greek), Middle Eastern, Indian, African, Chinese, and Southeast Asian (including Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Singaporean, Filipino, Cambodian, Malaysian, Burmese, and Indonesian). Alpha thalassemia trait is seen with increased frequency in the same ethnic groups. However, there are different types of alpha thalassemia traits within these populations. The frequency of hemoglobin H disease and alpha thalassemia major depends on the type of alpha thalassemia trait. The populations in which alpha thalassemia diseases are most common include Southeast Asians and Chinese (particularly Southern Chinese).
It is difficult to obtain accurate prevalence figures for various types of thalassemia within different populations. This difficulty arises due to testing limitations in determining exact genetic diagnoses, as well as the fact that many studies have focused on small, biased hospital populations.
Two studies reflect prevalence figures that can be helpful in counseling families and determining who to screen for beta thalassemia. Between the years of 1990 and 1996, the State of California screened over 3.1 million infants born in this multiethnic state for beta thalassemia. Approximately 1 in 114,000 infants had beta thalassemia major, with prevalence rates being highest among Asian Indians (about 1 in 4,000), Southeast Asians (about 1 in 10,000), and Middle Easterners (about 1 in 7,000). Another type of beta thalassemia disease, E/beta thalassemia, was represented in approximately 1 in 110,000 births, all of which being of Southeast Asian ancestry. Among Southeast Asians, the prevalence of E/beta thalassemia was approximately 1 in 2,600 births. This is in keeping with the observation that hemoglobin E trait carrier rates are relatively high within the Southeast Asian population: 16% in a study of 768 immigrants to California, and up to 25% in some specific Southeast Asian populations such as Cambodians. While these California studies address some of the limitations of earlier population studies, the pattern observed in California is expected to be different in other areas of the United States and the world. For example, Italians are underrepresented in this population when compared to the East Coast of the United States.
Determining prevalence figures for alpha thalassemia is even more difficult due to increased limitations in diagnostic testing. All types of alpha thalassemia disease are most common among people of Southeast Asian and Chinese descent, for reasons that become clearer with an understanding of the underlying genetics of alpha thalassemia. One study of 500 pregnant women in Northern Thailand estimated a frequency of 1 in 500 pregnancies affected by alpha thalassemia major, for example. Prevalence of alpha thalassemia disease is significantly lower in the United States owing primarily to immigration patterns. However at least one state, California, has observed growing hemoglobin H disease incidence rates that are high enough to justify universal newborn screening for the condition.
Humans normally make several types of the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin. An individual's stage in development determines whether he or she makes primarily embryonic, fetal, or adult hemoglobins. All types of hemoglobin are made of three components: heme, alpha (or alpha-like) globin, and beta (or beta-like) globin. All types of thalassemia are caused by changes in either the alpha- or beta-globin gene. These changes cause little or no globin to be produced. The thalassemias are, therefore, considered quantitative hemoglobin diseases. All types of thalassemias are recessively inherited, meaning that a genetic change must be inherited from both the mother and the father. The severity of the disease is influenced by the exact thalassemia mutations inherited, as well as other genetic and environmental factors. There are rare exceptions, notably with beta thalassemia, where globin gene mutations exhibit a dominant pattern of inheritance in which only one gene needs to be altered in order to see disease expression.
Thalassemia may be suspected if an individual shows signs that are suggestive of the disease. In all cases, however, laboratory diagnosis is essential to confirm the exact diagnosis and to allow for the provision of accurate genetic counseling about recurrence risks and testing options for parents and affected individuals. Screening is likewise recommended to determine trait status for individuals of high-risk ethnic groups.
The following tests are used to screen for thalassemia disease and/or trait:
- Complete blood count
- Hemoglobin electrophoresis with quantitative hemoglobin A2 and hemoglobin F
- Free erythrocyte-protoporphyrin (or ferritin or other studies of serum iron levels)
A complete blood count will identify low levels of hemoglobin, small red blood cells, and other red blood
Diagnosis of thalassemia can occur under various circumstances and at various ages. Several states offer thalassemia screening as part of the usual battery of blood tests done for newborns. This allows for early identification and treatment. Thalassemia can be identified before birth through the use of prenatal diagnosis. Chorionic villus sampling (CVS) can be offered as early as 10 weeks of pregnancy and involves removing a sample of the placenta made by the baby and testing the cells. Amniocentesis is generally offered between 15 and 22 weeks of pregnancy, but can sometimes be offered earlier. Two to three tablespoons of the fluid surrounding the baby is removed. This fluid contains fetal cells that can be tested. Pregnant woman and couples may choose prenatal testing in order to prepare for the birth of a baby that may have thalassemia. Alternately, knowing the diagnosis during pregnancy allows for the option of pregnancy termination. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is a relatively new technique that involves in-vitro fertilization followed by genetic testing of one cell from each developing embryo. Only the embryos unaffected by sickle cell disease are transferred back into the uterus. PGD is currently available on a research basis only and is relatively expensive.
Hemoglobin H disease
Hemoglobin H disease is a relatively mild form of thalassemia that may go unrecognized. It is not generally considered a condition that will reduce one's life expectancy. Education is an important part of managing the health of an individual with hemoglobin H disease. It is important to be able to recognize the signs of severe anemia that require medical attention. It is also important to be aware of the medications, chemicals, and other exposures to avoid due to the theoretical risk they pose of causing a severe anemia event. When severe anemia occurs, it is treated with blood transfusion therapy. For individuals with hemoglobin H disease, this is rarely required. For those with the hemoglobin H/Constant Spring form of the disease, the need for transfusions may be intermittent or ongoing, perhaps on a monthly basis and requiring desferoxamine treatment. Individuals with this more severe form of the disease may also have an increased chance of requiring removal of an enlarged and/or overactive spleen.
Alpha thalassemia major
Because alpha thalassemia major is most often a condition that is fatal in the prenatal or newborn period, treatment has previously been focused on identifying affected pregnancies in order to provide appropriate management to reduce potential maternal complications. Pregnancy termination provides one form of management. Increased prenatal surveillance and early treatment of maternal complications is an approach that
As discussed above, the prognosis for individuals with the most serious types of thalassemia has improved drastically in the last several years following recent medical advances in transfusion, chemo-, and transplantation therapy. Advances continue and promise to improve the life expectancy and quality of life further for affected individuals.
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Jennifer Bojanowski, MS, CGC