Erythropoietin (EPO) is a major regulatory factor controlling red blood cell (RBC) production in humans. Although other humoral factors can alter the proliferation of committed early erythroid progenitors in vitro, no factor other than EPO has been clearly shown to induce proliferation of these cells in vivo. In a clinical trail of recombinant granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) and recombinant EPO in patients with advanced human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, we noted reticulocytosis and increases in hemoglobin when G-CSF was administered before the administration of EPO. Subsequent studies demonstrated a significant increase in circulating burst forming unit-erythron (BFU-E) during daily recombinant G-CSF therapy. This increase was both time- and dose-dependent. The magnitude of increase in BFU-E correlated with the magnitude of increase in neutrophils and was associated with a mean increase in reticulocytes of 32,363/microL and a significant increase in mean hemoglobin of 1.04 +/- 0.34 g/dL over an 18-day interval. There was a significant increase in iron binding capacity and decreases in iron saturation and ferritin levels. In patients who were not recently transfused, there was an associated fall in endogenous erythropoietin levels. The increase in RBC production was most marked in patients who were severely anemic, transfusion-dependent, and who had elevated pretreatment EPO levels. There was no correlation between the increase in BFU-E and endogenous EPO levels or the time since last dose of zidovudine. The addition of recombinant EPO therapy three times weekly to patients did not result in further significant increases in BFU-E but did significantly increase hemoglobin. Our data suggest that recombinant G-CSF may be one of the hematopoietic factors that influences production of BFU-E and RBCs in humans.

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