Beta-thalassemia (Bthal) is a genetic disorder due to mutations in the ß-globin gene, leading to a reduced or absent production of HbA, which interferes with erythroid cell maturation and limits normal red cell production. Patients are affected by severe anemia, hepatosplenomegaly, and skeletal abnormalities due to rapid expansion of the erythroid compartment in bone marrow (BM) caused by ineffective erythropoiesis. In a classical view of hematopoiesis, the blood cell lineages arise via a hierarchical scheme starting with multipotent stem cells that become increasingly restricted in their differentiation potential through oligopotent and then unipotent progenitors. In human, novel purification strategies based on differential expression of CD49f and CD90 enrich for long-term (49f+) and short-term (49f−) repopulating hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), with distinct cell cycle properties, but similar myeloid (My) and lymphoid (Ly) potential. In this view, it has been proposed that erythroid (Ery) and megakaryocytic (Mk) fates branch off directly from CD90-/49f− multipotent progenitors (MPPs). Recently, a new study suggested that separation between multipotent (Ery/My/Ly) long-term repopulating cells (Subset1, defined as CLEC9AhighCD34low) and cells with only My/Ly and no Ery potential (Subset2, defined as CLEC9AlowCD34high)occurs within the phenotypic HSC/MPP and CD49f+ HSCs compartment.


A general perturbed and stress condition is present in the thalassemic BM microenvironment. Since its impact on the hematopoietic cell subpopulations is mostly unknown, we will investigate which model of hematopoiesis/erythropoiesis occurs in Bthal. Moreover, since Beta-Thalassemia is an erythropoietic disorder, it could be considered as a disease model to study the 'erythroid branching' in the hematopoietic hierarchy.


We defined by immunophenotype and functional analysis the lineage commitment of most primitive HSC/MPP cells in patients affected by this pathology compared to healthy donors (HDs). Furthermore, in order to delineate the transcriptional networks governing hematopoiesis in Beta-thalassemia, RNAseq analysis was performed on sorted hematopoietic subpopulations from BM of Bthal patients and HDs. By droplet digital PCR on RNA purified from mesenchymal stromal cells of Bthal patients, we evaluated the expression levels of some niche factors involved in the regulation of hematopoiesis and erythropoiesis. Moreover, the protein levels in the BM plasma were analyzed by performing ELISA.


Differences in the primitive compartment were observed with an increased proportion of multipotent progenitors in Bthal patients compared to HDs. The Subset1 compartment is actually endowed with an enhanced Ery potential. Focusing on progenitors (CD34+ CD38+) and using a new sorting scheme that efficiently resolved My, Ery, and Mk lineage fates, we quantified the new My (CD71-BAH1-/+) and Ery (CD71+ BAH1-/+) subsets and found a reduction of Ery subset in Bthal samples. We can hypothesize that the erythroid-enriched subsets are more prone to differentiate quickly due to the higher sensitivity to Epo stimuli or other bone marrow niche signals. Gene set enrichment analysis, perfomed on RNAseq data, showed that Bthal HSC/MPP presented negative enrichment of several pathways related to stemness and quiescence. Cellular processes involved in erythropoiesis were found altered in Bthal HSC. Moreover, some master erythroid transcription factors involved were overrepresented in Bthal across the hematopoietic cascade. We identified the niche factors which affect molecular pathways and the lineage commitment of Bthal HSCs.


Overall, these data indicate that Bthal HSCs are more cycling cells which egress from the quiescent state probably towards an erythroid differentiation, probably in response to a chronic BM stimulation. On the other hand,some evidences support our hypothesis of an 'erythroid branching' already present in the HSC pool, exacerbated by the pathophysiology of the disease.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.