Reversal of anemia is the major target of thalassemia research, but studies of the molecular and cellular basis of the ineffective erythropoiesis of thalassemia are limited by access to donor progenitor cells. Here we demonstrate that thalassemic erythropoiesis may be recapitulated ex vivo by reducing the expression of hemoglobin in cultured CD34+ cells. Using lentiviral transduction of progenitor cells obtained from three healthy adult human donors, shRNA molecules were screened for their ability to reduce beta-globin gene and protein expression over 21 days in culture. Cells transduced with a scrambled vector served as donor-matched controls. Among the screened shRNA, one named HBB caused a consistent and significant reduction in beta-globin mRNA and protein. Beta-globin mRNA was reduced to levels <10% (p<0.001) compared to that of the controls (day14/21), while maintaining expression of gamma- and alpha-globin mRNA. HPLC was performed on an equivalent number of cells sampled on culture day 21 for hemoglobin type (HbA vs. HbF) and quantitation (area under each HPLC peak). The HbA peak was reduced by 96%, and there was a minor increase in the HbF peak (1.6 fold) after HBB transduction. Based upon these quantitative changes in hemoglobin, HbF represented 49.3±9.3% in the HBB transduced population compared with 2.9±0.7% (p<0.01) in controls. On culture day 14, there was no significant difference in glycophorin A (CD235), transferrin receptor (CD71), or cellular morphology despite the reduction in beta-globin mRNA. However, impaired terminal differentiation was detected by retainment of surface CD71 and a lack of enucleation during the third week of culture. Cell counts were lower in HBB transduced cells during the final stages of erythroid differentiation with a 61% (p=0.03) reduction in total cell counts by day 21 when compared to controls. Annexin V assay on day 21 also demonstrated increased phosphatidylserine expression in the HBB transduced cells [HBB=55.7±14.4% vs. Control=25.0±3.0%] in association with the decreased terminal differentiation. GDF15 quantitation demonstrated a significant (p=0.006) increase in the culture supernatants of HBB transduced cells. Sorted cytospin preparations revealed a distinct population of mature normoblasts containing a highly condensed nucleus surrounded by a thin ring of hypochromic cytoplasm. Reduction of erythroblast beta-globin gene and protein expression to levels associated with beta thalassemia major in humans causes ineffective erythropoiesis ex vivo by reducing cell production, increasing surface expression of phosphatidylserine, and impairing enucleation during terminal maturation. Efforts are now underway to use the culture system to explore mechanisms whereby reduced hemoglobin synthesis causes normoblast defects, and for screening of chemical and genetic rescue therapies for the thalassemic erythroid phenotype.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.