Intracellular hemoglobin S (HbS) polymerization is most likely to be the primary determinant of the clinical and biologic manifestations of sickle cell disease (SCD). Fetal hemoglobin (HbF) does not enter the HbS polymer and its intracellular expression in sickle erythrocytes inhibits polymerization. HbF levels, high at birth but decreasing thereafter, protect the newborn from the clinical manifestations of this hemoglobinopathy. We have measured the sequential changes in HbF, F reticulocytes, and F cells in the first 2 years of life in 25 children with SCD and compared the results with those obtained in 30 normal children (AA). We have also calculated HbF per F cell (F/F cell), the preferential survival of F cells versus non-F cells, as measured by the ratio F cells versus F reticulocytes (FC/FR) and polymer tendency at 40% and 70% oxygen saturation. HbF levels decreased from about 80.4% +/- 4.0% at birth to 9.2% +/- 2.9% at 24 months. During this time, we observed a regular decrease of the F reticulocytes and the F cells. The kinetics of the decline of F/F cell was comparable with the decline of HbF, rapid from birth (mean, 27.0 +/- 3.6 pg) to 12 months of age (mean, 8.5 +/- 1.5 pg) and then slower from 12 to 24 months of age (mean, 6.2 +/- 1.0 pg) in the SCD children. In the AA children, the decrease in HbF, due to changes in both numbers of F cells and F/F cell, was more precipitous, reaching steady-state levels by 10 months of age. Calculated values for mean polymer tendency in the F-cell population showed that polymerization should begin to occur at 40% oxygen saturation at about 3 months and increase progressively with age, whereas polymerization at 70% oxygen saturation would not occur until about 24 months. These values correspond to HbF levels of 50.8% +/- 10.8% and 9.2% +/- 2.9%, respectively, and F/F cell levels of 15.6 +/- 4.5 pg and 6.2 +/- 1.0 pg, respectively. In the non--F-cell population, polymerization was expected at birth at both oxygen saturation values. Three individuals had significantly greater predicted polymerization tendency than the remainder of the group because of early decreases in HbF. These individuals in particular, the remainder of the cohort, as well as other recruited newborns, will be studied prospectively to ascertain the relationship among hematologic parameters, which determine polymerization tendency and the various clinical manifestations of SCD.

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