A number of therapeutic agents including hydroxyurea, butyrate and decitabine have shown considerable promise in the treatment of sickle cell disease (SCD). However, the same agents have shown less clinical activity in β-thalassemia. As a first step towards understanding the molecular basis of the different clinical responses to these agents, we have studied the mechanisms of induction of fetal hemoglobin (HbF) by butyrate in BFU-E derived cells from 5 patients with SCD and 9 patients with β-thalassemia intermedia. Exposure to butyrate resulted in a dose-dependent augmentation of γ-globin mRNA levels in erythroid cells from patients with SCD. In contrast, induction of γ-globin expression in erythroid cells from patients with β-thalassemia intermedia was only seen at a high concentration of butyrate. The increase in γ-globin mRNA levels in patients with SCD and β-thalassemia intermedia was associated with opening of the DNA structure as manifested by decreased DNA methylation at the γ-globin promoters. Interestingly, butyrate exposure had markedly different effects on the expression of the β- and α-globin genes in the two categories of patients. Butyrate decreased the level of β-globin mRNA in 4 out of 5 patients with SCD (P = 0.04), while in β-thalassemia the levels of β-globin mRNA did not change in 7 patients and decreased in 2 patients after butyrate exposure (P = 0.12). Thus in patients with SCD, the effects of the induction of the γ-globin gene on the γ/(β+γ) mRNA ratios were further enhanced by the butyrate-mediated decreased expression of the β-globin gene. As a result, γ/(β+γ) mRNA ratios increased in all patients with SCD, with a mean increase of 31% (P = 0.002). In contrast, butyrate increased γ/(β+γ) mRNA ratios only in 4 out of 9 patients with β-thalassemia, with a more modest mean increase of 12% (P = 0.004). Interestingly, the decreased β-globin expression in patients with SCD was associated with closing of the DNA configuration as manifested by hypermethylation of DNA at the promoter of the β-globin gene while methylation of the same promoter did not change following butyrate exposure in patients with β-thalassemia intermedia. More surprisingly, the expression of the α-globin genes increased following butyrate exposure in 4 out of 9 patients with β-thalassemia, while the levels of α-globin mRNA decreased in 4 out of 5 patients with SCD. As a result, the favorable effects of the butyrate-induced increase in γ-globin gene expression on the α: non-α mRNA imbalance in patients with β-thalassemia intermedia were partly neutralized by the corresponding increase in α-globin gene expression. These differences may explain, at least in part, the more favorable effects of inducers of HbF in SCD than in β-thalassemia. Further studies are necessary to fully understand the molecular bases of the different responses to agents that induce HbF in patients with these disorders.

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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