Hydroxyurea (HU), an inhibitor of DNA synthesis, has been shown to increase fetal hemoglobin (HbF) levels in patients with sickle cell anemia and in some patients with beta-thalassemia. However, until now there have not been good in vitro model systems that simulate this effect for study of the molecular and cellular mechanism(s) involved in perturbing the normal ontogeny of the globin genes. We analyzed the cellular effects of HU using a two-phase liquid culture procedure (Fibach et al: Blood 73:100, 1989) in which human peripheral blood- derived progenitor cells undergo proliferation and differentiation. HU was found to have multiple effects on these cultured cells: (1) an increase in the proportion of HbF produced; (2) a decrease in cell number due to inhibition of cell proliferation; (3) an increase in hemoglobin content per cell (mean corpuscular hemoglobin [MCH]); and (4) an increase in cell size (mean corpuscular volume). The extent of these effects was related to the HU dose and time of addition. When added to cell cultures from normal individuals, 4 days following their exposure to erythropoietin (EPO), 100 mumol/L HU caused a 1.3- to 3.5- fold increase in the proportion of HbF, from 0.4% to 5.2% (mean 1.6) in untreated to 1.5% to 8.2% (mean 3.1) in HU-treated cultures and a 45% +/- 10% increase in MCH but only a 25% +/- 7% decrease in cell number on day 13. Cultures of cells derived from five patients with sickle cell anemia have shown a twofold to fivefold increase in the percentage of Hb F following addition of HU while four patients with beta- thalassemia showed a 1.3- to 6.2-fold increase. We believe that this primary cell culture procedure should prove useful in studying the cellular and molecular mechanisms of pharmacologic induction of HbF and might provide a valuable predictive assay system for evaluation of the response of individual patients with hemoglobinopathies to HU and similar agents.

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