The phospholipids of the human red cell are distributed asymmetrically in the bilayer of the red cell membrane. In certain pathologic states, such as sickle cell anemia, phospholipid asymmetry is altered. Although several methods can be used to measure phospholipid organization, small organizational changes have been very difficult to assess. Moreover, these methods fail to identify subpopulations of cells that have lost their normal phospholipid asymmetry. Using fluorescently labeled annexin V in flow cytometry and fluorescent microscopy, we were able to identify and quantify red cells that had lost their phospholipid asymmetry in populations as small as 1 million cells. Moreover, loss of phospholipid organization in subpopulations as small as 0.1% of the total population could be identified, and individual cells could be studied by fluorescent microscopy. An excellent correlation was found between fluorescence-activated cell sorter (FACS) analysis results using annexin V to detect red cells with phosphatidylserine (PS) on their surface and a PS-requiring prothrombinase assay using similar red cells. Cells that bound fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC)-labeled annexin V could be isolated from the population using magnetic beads covered with an anti-FITC antibody. Evaluation of blood samples from patients with sickle cell anemia under oxygenated conditions demonstrated the presence of subpopulations of cells that had lost phospholipid asymmetry. While only a few red cells were labeled in normal control samples (0.21% +/- 0.12%, n = 8), significantly increased (P < .001) annexin V labeling was observed in samples from patients with sickle cell anemia (2.18% +/- 1.21%, n = 13). We conclude that loss of phospholipid asymmetry may occur in small subpopulations of red cells and that fluorescently labeled annexin V can be used to quantify and isolate these cells.

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