β-Thalassemia is a genetic disorder characterized by reduced or absent β-globin synthesis. Complications include anemia, ineffective erythropoiesis (IE), splenomegaly and iron overload. Homeostatic iron levels are maintained by the hepatic hormone hepcidin (HAMP), which degrades the iron exporter ferroportin. Iron-responsive transcriptional control of HAMP is normally mediated by the bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)/SMAD pathway. Despite the high organ iron load associated with β-thalassemia, low Hamp levels have been reported in patients with this disorder. HAMP levels are also low relative to organ iron load in mouse models of β-thalassemia. Although iron overload is a central component of the pathogenesis of this disease, the factors contributing to inadequate HAMP expression have not been fully described. We previously showed that moderate transgenic overexpression of HAMP increased hemoglobin levels, improved erythropoiesis, and decreased both splenomegaly and iron overload in a mouse model of β-thalassemia intermedia (th3/+). In order to define the pathways controlling HAMP transcription in β-thalassemia, initial studies examined HAMP expression in the context of BMP/SMAD pathway members and targets genes. qRT-PCR analyses confirm decreased HAMP expression in 2 month old th3/+ mice and indicate a significantly larger decrease in mice with β-thalassemia major (th3/th3) relative to wild-type (+/+) controls. A significant decrease in the common SMAD pathway member, SMAD4, is also evident in both strains. TMPRSS6, the transcript encoding the protease matriptase-2, is also decreased in th3/th3 mice. In contrast, at 5 months of age the transcriptional profile of these genes in th3/+ mice is indistinguishable from that of wild-type mice. By 12 months of age, there is a trend toward increased HAMP transcription corresponding to increases in the BMP/SMAD targets ID1 and ATOH8. Examination of the effect of a low-iron diet on the transcriptional levels of these genes over time in th3/+ mice indicates no significant differences from +/+ mice after the data were normalized to liver iron concentrations. In contrast, comparison of the transcriptional profile of these genes with +/+ mice fed a high-iron diet indicates that HAMP expression is blunted in thalassemic mice. Preliminary Western blot analyses indicate that phosphorylation of SMAD 1/5/8 in th3/+ and th3/th3 liver samples, although comparable to that in +/+ samples, is lower than the levels observed in mice fed a high-iron diet. These data indicate that iron sensing through the BMP/SMAD pathway is intact, but somewhat blunted in thalassemic mice. Thus an alternative mechanism, possibly mediated by the IE that is characteristic of this disease, is likely responsible for the suppression of HAMP. In order to gain support for this hypothesis, qRT-PCR analyses were performed on mice overexpressing transgenic erythropoietin (TgEpo) to examine the effect of erythropoiesis on HAMP expression. The data indicate suppression of HAMP transcription despite clear activation of the BMP/SMAD pathway, as evidenced by increases in BMP6 and ID1. Of note, SMAD7 transcription was not detected in these animals. Compared to +/+ mice, phlebotomized mice also show decreased transcription of HAMP and SMAD4 without corresponding decreases in the BMP/SMAD pathway targets ID1 and ATOH8. TMPRSS6 transcription was also decreased, but FURIN expression was increased. FURIN, a known hypoxia target gene, was also transcribed at a significantly higher rate in th3/th3 mice than in either th3/+ or +/+ mice. qRT-PCR data indicate that this is mediated by HIF-2α, as evidenced by decreased transcription of the HIF-1α target, pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase 1, and increased transcription of the HIF-2α target, erythropoietin (EPO), in th3/th3 liver samples. HIF2-α expression in th3/th3 liver lysates was confirmed by Western blot analysis. Collectively, these data indicate that HAMP expression in thalassemia is suppressed through a mechanism distinct from a BMP/SMAD feedback loop and provide support for the existence of an ‘erythroid factor'. Results also suggest the increased suppression of HAMP observed in th3/th3 mice is attributable to the activation of HIF2-α, which in turn would be expected to aggravate the production of an erythroid factor through the upregulation of EPO.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.