Growth factor independent 1 (GFI1) and Growth Factor Independent 1B (GFI1B) are zinc finger transcriptional repressors that share about 90% homology on amino acid sequence and are expressed during hematopoiesis. While GFI1 is most important for granulocyte-monocyte lineage commitment, GFI1B is an essential master regulator of erythroid and megakaryocytic lineages. Mice lacking Gfi1b are embryonic lethal due to anemia and thrombocytopenia. In humans, alternative splicing leads to a shorter p32 isoform that lacks the first 2 of 6 zinc fingers. GFI1B germline mutations have been reported to cause autosomal-dominant macrothrombocytopenia with a grey-platelet syndrome phenotype, implying that the mutant protein acts in a dominant-negative manner.

We report on a Chechen family from eastern Georgia whose affected family members all present with severe, life-threatening bleeding diathesis. The female index patient had recurrent hematomata and multiple petechiae since childhood. Both of her children (age 9 and 7) present with very low platelet counts (below 45/nL) and a similar cutaneous bleeding pattern like her mother. The brother also had thrombocytopenia and died at age 33 in reponse to a spontaneous cerebral hemorrhage. In contrast, the index patient's husband, her parents and the children of the deceased brother were clinically unaffected.

Blood smears of affected patients showed macrothrombocytopenia with reduced May-Grünwald-Giema staining and decreased staining for alpha-granule markers von Willebrand factor (vWF) and P-selectin (CD62P). Platelet function testing revealed reduced responses to ADP, collagen, TRAP-6 and arachidonic acid. White and red blood cell parameters were overall normal in the index patient and the two affected children. We analyzed DNA from the index patient by targeted next generation sequencing for 59 genes relevant for platelet formation or function. We found a novel homozygous single nucleotide insertion in GFI1B (NM_004188.5; c.551insG), which was confirmed by Sanger sequencing and is expected to cause a premature stop-codon. The homozygous mutation co-segregated with the phenotype. The unaffected mother, the husband and two unaffected nephews were heterozygous, suggesting a local founder variant and an unexpected autosomal-recessive trait. Bone marrow analysis showed unaffected myeloid and erythroid cells, but dysplastic micromegakaryocytes with increased CD34 staining. Peripheral blood platelets were also positive for CD34. We performed quantitative real-time PCR of platelet RNA and found residual homozygous c.551_G insertion in the p37 transcript and an unexpected expression of the p32 variant. The p37 transcript was markedly reduced in context with an increased p32/p37 ratio compared to controls. Our findings indicate that the mutated transcript was not completely degraded by nonsense-mediated decay, but mostly subjected to alternative splicing skipping the mutated exon 9.

Our findings imply that the first two zinc fingers of GFI1B are dispensable for human erythropoiesis, but essential for normal megakaryopoiesis and the production of functional platelets. While previous mutations affect both isoforms, the insertion variant presented here, results in a premature stop-codon and affects only the p37 isoform due to alternative splicing. This splice variant defines an important node at the megakaryocytic-erythroid progenitor stage and we conclude that the transcriptional regulation of erythropoiesis is uncoupled from that of megakaryopoiesis through alternative splicing of GFI1B.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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