A prominent clinical manifestation of sickle cell disease (SCD) is hemolytic anemia. Although complement activation can lead to intravascular hemolysis, its role in the hemolysis of SCD is not known. Because normal red blood cells induced to vesiculate by treatment with calcium and ionophore become sensitive to damage by activated complement and because sickle cells release microvesicles as they circulate, we postulated that sickle cells might also be unusually sensitive to complement-dependent hemolysis. Complement activation is tightly regulated on the membrane of the normal erythrocyte; therefore, defective complement regulation by the sickle cell would be necessary for complement-dependent hemolysis to occur. These studies show a defect in the regulation of membrane attack complex (C5b-9) formation in sickle erythrocytes, particularly in the most dense cells. The defect is characterized by increased binding of C5b-7 and of C9 to denser sickle cells and results in increased susceptibility of sickle cells to C5b-9-mediated (reactive) lysis initiated by either C5b6 or activated cobra venom factor. Among the densest sickle cells, irreversibly sickled cells are especially sensitive to reactive lysis. The similarity of this defect to that previously described in a patient with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria suggests that complement-mediated hemolysis could play a role in the anemia of SCD.

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