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Figure (A) shows normal red blood cells flowing freely through veins. The inset shows a cross section of a normal red blood cell with normal haemoglobin. Figure B shows abnormal, sickled red blood cells log jamming, sticking and accumulating at the branching point in a vein. The inset image shows a cross-section of a sickle cell with long polymerized HbS strands stretching and distorting the cell shape.
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Sickle-cell disease (SCD), or sickle-cell anaemia (SCA) or sometimes drepanocytosis, is a hereditary blood disorder, characterized by an abnormality in the oxygen-carrying haemoglobin molecule in red blood cells. This leads to a propensity for the cells to assume an abnormal, rigid, sickle-like shape under certain circumstances. Sickle-cell disease is associated with a number of acute and chronic health problems, such as severe infections, attacks of severe pain ("sickle-cell crisis"), and stroke, and there is an increased risk of death. Sickle-cell disease occurs when a person inherits two abnormal copies of the haemoglobin gene, one from each parent. Several subtypes exist, depending on the exact mutation in each haemoglobin gene. A person with a single abnormal copy does not experience symptoms and is said to have sickle-cell trait.
The complications of sickle-cell disease can be prevented to a large extent with vaccination, preventative antibiotics, blood transfusion, and the drug hydroxyurea/hydroxycarbamide. A small proportion requires a transplant of bone marrow cells.
Almost 300,000 children are born with a form of sickle-cell disease every year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in other countries such as the West Indies and South Asia, and in people of African origin elsewhere in the world. The condition was first described in the medical literature by the American physician James B. Herrick in 1910, and in the 1940s and 1950s contributions by Nobel prize-winner Linus Pauling made it the first disease where the exact genetic and molecular defect was elucidated.
- 1 Signs and symptoms
- 2 Genetics
- 3 Pathophysiology
- 4 Diagnosis
- 5 Management
- 6 Prognosis
- 7 Epidemiology
- 8 History
- 9 Research
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Signs and symptoms
Sickle-cell disease may lead to various acute and chronic complications, several of which have a high mortality rate.
The terms "sickle-cell crisis" or "sickling crisis" may be used to describe several independent acute conditions occurring in patients with SCD. SCD results in anemia and crises that could be of many types including the vaso-occlusive crisis, aplastic crisis, sequestration crisis, haemolytic crisis, and others. Most episodes of sickle-cell crises last between five and seven days. "Although infection, dehydration, and acidosis (all of which favor sickling) can act as triggers, in most instances, no predisposing cause is identified."
The  or lungs are considered an emergency and treated with red-blood cell transfusions. Incentive spirometry, a technique to encourage deep breathing to minimise the development of atelectasis, is recommended.
Splenic sequestration crisis
Splenic sequestration crises are acute, painful enlargements of the spleen, caused by intrasplenic trapping of red cells and resulting in a precipitous fall in hemoglobin levels with the potential for hypovolemic shock. Sequestration crises are considered an emergency. If not treated, patients may die within 1–2 hours due to circulatory failure. Management is supportive, sometimes with blood transfusion. These crises are transient, they continue for 3–4 hours and may last for one day.
Acute chest syndrome
Acute chest syndrome (ACS) is defined by new pulmonary infiltrate with a manifestation of pulmonary symptoms such as tachypnea and dyspnea. It is the second-most common complication and it accounts for about 25% of deaths in patients with SCD, majority of cases present with vaso-occlusive crises then they develop ACS. Nevertheless, about 80% of patients have vaso-occlusive crises during ACS.
Aplastic crises are acute worsenings of the patient's baseline anaemia, producing pallor, tachycardia, and fatigue. This crisis is normally triggered by parvovirus B19, which directly affects production of red blood cells by invading the red cell precursors and multiplying in and destroying them. Parvovirus infection nearly completely prevents red blood cell production for two to three days. In normal individuals, this is of little consequence, but the shortened red cell life of SCD patients results in an abrupt, life-threatening situation. Reticulocyte counts drop dramatically during the disease (causing reticulocytopenia), and the rapid turnover of red cells leads to the drop in haemoglobin. This crisis takes 4 days to one week to disappear. Most patients can be managed supportively; some need blood transfusion.
Haemolytic crises are acute accelerated drops in haemoglobin level. The red blood cells break down at a faster rate. This is particularly common in patients with coexistent G6PD deficiency. Management is supportive, sometimes with blood transfusions.
One of the earliest clinical manifestations is dactylitis, presenting as early as six months of age, and may occur in children with sickle-cell trait. The crisis can last up to a month. Another recognised type of sickle crisis, acute chest syndrome, is characterised by fever, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and pulmonary infiltrate on a chest X-ray. Given that pneumonia and sickling in the lung can both produce these symptoms, the patient is treated for both conditions. It can be triggered by painful crisis, respiratory infection, bone-marrow embolisation, or possibly by atelectasis, opiate administration, or surgery.
Sickle-cell anaemia can lead to various complications, including:
- Increased risk of severe bacterial infections due to loss of functioning spleen tissue (and comparable to the risk of Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae. Daily penicillin prophylaxis is the most commonly used treatment during childhood, with some haematologists continuing treatment indefinitely. Patients benefit today from routine vaccination for S. pneumoniae.
- Stroke, which can result from a progressive narrowing of blood vessels, prevents oxygen from reaching the brain. Cerebral infarction occurs in children and cerebral haemorrhage in adults.
- Silent stroke causes no immediate symptoms, but is associated with damage to the brain. Silent stroke is probably five times as common as symptomatic stroke. About 10–15% of children with SCD suffer strokes, with silent strokes predominating in the younger patients.
- Cholelithiasis (gallstones) and cholecystitis may result from excessive bilirubin production and precipitation due to prolonged haemolysis.
- Avascular necrosis (aseptic bone necrosis) of the hip and other major joints may occur as a result of ischaemia.
- Decreased immune reactions due to hyposplenism (malfunctioning of the spleen)
- Priapism and infarction of the penis
- Osteomyelitis (bacterial bone infection), the most common cause of osteomyelitis in SCD is Salmonella (especially the atypical serotypes Salmonella typhimurium, Salmonella enteritidis, Salmonella choleraesuis and Salmonella paratyphi B), followed by Staphylococcus aureus and Gram-negative enteric bacilli perhaps because intravascular sickling of the bowel leads to patchy ischaemic infarction.
- Opioid tolerance can occur as a normal, physiologic response to the therapeutic use of opiates. Addiction to opiates occurs no more commonly among individuals with sickle-cell disease than among other individuals treated with opiates for other reasons.
- Acute papillary necrosis in the kidneys
- Leg ulcers
- In eyes, background retinopathy, proliferative retinopathy, vitreous haemorrhages, and retinal detachments can result in blindness. Regular annual eye checks are recommended.
- During pregnancy, intrauterine growth retardation, spontaneous abortion, and pre-eclampsia
- Chronic pain: Even in the absence of acute vaso-occlusive pain, many patients have unreported chronic pain.
- Pulmonary hypertension (increased pressure on the pulmonary artery) can lead to strain on the right ventricle and a risk of heart failure; typical symptoms are shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance, and episodes of syncope.
- Chronic renal failure due to sickle-cell nephropathy manifests itself with hypertension, protein loss in the urine, loss of red blood cells in urine and worsened anaemia. If it progresses to end-stage renal failure, it carries a poor prognosis.
Normally, humans have haemoglobin A, which consists of two alpha and two beta chains, haemoglobin A2, which consists of two alpha and two delta chains, and haemoglobin F, consisting of two alpha and two gamma chains in their bodies. Of these, haemoglobin F dominates until about 6 weeks of age then A dominates throughout life.
Sickle-cell conditions have an autosomal recessive pattern of inheritance from parents. The types of haemoglobin a person makes in the red blood cells depend on what haemoglobin genes are inherited from her or his parents. If one parent has sickle-cell anaemia and the other has sickle-cell trait, then the child has a 50% chance of having sickle-cell disease and a 50% chance of having sickle-cell trait. When both parents have sickle-cell trait, a child has a 25% chance of sickle-cell disease, 25% will not carry any sickle-cell alleles, and 50% will have the heterozygous condition.
Sickle-cell gene mutation probably arose spontaneously in different geographic areas, as suggested by restriction endonuclease analysis. These variants are known as Cameroon, Senegal, Benin, Bantu, and Saudi-Asian. Their clinical importance is because some are associated with higher HbF levels, e.g., Senegal and Saudi-Asian variants, and tend to have milder disease.
In people heterozygous for HgbS (carriers of sickling haemoglobin), the polymerisation problems are minor, because the normal allele is able to produce over 50% of the haemoglobin. In people homozygous for HgbS, the presence of long-chain polymers of HbS distort the shape of the red blood cell from a smooth doughnut-like shape to ragged and full of spikes, making it fragile and susceptible to breaking within capillaries. Carriers have symptoms only if they are deprived of oxygen (for example, while climbing a mountain) or while severely dehydrated. The sickle-cell disease occurs when the sixth amino acid, glutamic acid, is replaced by valine to change its structure and function; as such, sickle-cell anemia is also known as E6V. Valine is hydrophobic, causing the haemoglobin to collapse on itself occasionally. The structure is not changed otherwise. When enough haemoglobin collapses on itself the red blood cells become sickle-shaped.
The gene defect is a known mutation of a single nucleotide (see single-nucleotide polymorphism - SNP) (A to T) of the β-globin gene, which results in glutamic acid being substituted by valine at position 6. Haemoglobin S with this mutation is referred to as HbS, as opposed to the normal adult HbA. The genetic disorder is due to the mutation of a single nucleotide, from a CTC to CAC codon on the coding strand, which is transcribed from the template strand into a GUG codon. This is normally a benign mutation, causing no apparent effects on the secondary, tertiary, or quaternary structures of haemoglobin in conditions of normal oxygen concentration. What it does allow for, under conditions of low oxygen concentration, is the polymerization of the HbS itself. The deoxy form of haemoglobin exposes a hydrophobic patch on the protein between the E and F helices. The hydrophobic residues of the valine at position 6 of the beta chain in haemoglobin are able to associate with the hydrophobic patch, causing haemoglobin S molecules to aggregate and form fibrous precipitates.
The allele responsible for sickle-cell anaemia can be found on the short arm of chromosome 11, more specifically 11p15. A person who receives the defective gene from both father and mother develops the disease; a person who receives one defective and one healthy allele remains healthy, but can pass on the disease and is known as a carrier or heterozygote. Heterozygotes are still able to contract malaria, but their symptoms are generally less severe.
Due to the adaptive advantage of the heterozygote, the disease is still prevalent, especially among people with recent ancestry in malaria-stricken areas, such as Africa, the Mediterranean, India, and the Middle East. Malaria was historically endemic to southern Europe, but it was declared eradicated in the mid-20th century, with the exception of rare sporadic cases.
The malaria parasite has a complex lifecycle and spends part of it in red blood cells. In a carrier, the presence of the malaria parasite causes the red blood cells with defective haemoglobin to rupture prematurely, making the Plasmodium parasite unable to reproduce. Further, the polymerization of Hb affects the ability of the parasite to digest Hb in the first place. Therefore, in areas where malaria is a problem, people's chances of survival actually increase if they carry sickle-cell trait (selection for the heterozygote).
In the USA, with no endemic malaria, the prevalence of sickle-cell anaemia among blacks is lower (about 0.25%) than in West Africa (about 4.0%) and is falling. Without endemic malaria, the sickle-cell mutation is purely disadvantageous and will tend to be selected out of the affected population by natural selection. However, the African American community of the USA is known to be the result of significant admixture between several African and non-African ethnic groups, and also represents the descendants of survivors of slavery and the slave trade. Thus, a lower degree of endogamy and, particularly, abnormally high health-selective pressure through slavery may be the most plausible explanations for the lower prevalence of sickle-cell anaemia (and, possibly, other genetic diseases) among African Americans compared to sub-Saharan Africans. Another factor limiting the spread of sickle-cell genes in North America is the absence of cultural proclivities to polygamy, which allows affected males to continue to seek unaffected children with multiple partners.
The loss of red blood cell elasticity is central to the pathophysiology of sickle-cell disease. Normal red blood cells are quite elastic, which allows the cells to deform to pass through capillaries. In sickle-cell disease, low-oxygen tension promotes red blood cell sickling and repeated episodes of sickling damage the cell membrane and decrease the cell's elasticity. These cells fail to return to normal shape when normal oxygen tension is restored. As a consequence, these rigid blood cells are unable to deform as they pass through narrow capillaries, leading to vessel occlusion and ischaemia.
The actual anaemia of the illness is caused by haemolysis, the destruction of the red cells, because of their shape. Although the bone marrow attempts to compensate by creating new red cells, it does not match the rate of destruction. Healthy red blood cells typically function for 90–120 days, but sickled cells only last 10–20 days.
In HbSS, the complete blood count reveals haemoglobin levels in the range of 6–8 g/dl with a high reticulocyte count (as the bone marrow compensates for the destruction of sickled cells by producing more red blood cells). In other forms of sickle-cell disease, Hb levels tend to be higher. A blood film may show features of hyposplenism (target cells and Howell-Jolly bodies).
Sickling of the red blood cells, on a blood film, can be induced by the addition of sodium metabisulfite. The presence of sickle haemoglobin can also be demonstrated with the "sickle solubility test". A mixture of haemoglobin S (Hb S) in a reducing solution (such as sodium dithionite) gives a turbid appearance, whereas normal Hb gives a clear solution.
Abnormal haemoglobin forms can be detected on haemoglobin electrophoresis, a form of gel electrophoresis on which the various types of haemoglobin move at varying speeds. Sickle-cell haemoglobin (HgbS) and haemoglobin C with sickling (HgbSC)—the two most common forms—can be identified from there. The diagnosis can be confirmed with high-performance liquid chromatography. Genetic testing is rarely performed, as other investigations are highly specific for HbS and HbC.
An acute sickle-cell crisis is often precipitated by infection. Therefore, a urinalysis to detect an occult urinary tract infection, and chest X-ray to look for occult pneumonia, should be routinely performed.
People who are known carriers of the disease often undergo genetic counseling before they have a child. A test to see if an unborn child has the disease takes either a blood sample from the fetus or a sample of amniotic fluid. Since taking a blood sample from a fetus has greater risks, the latter test is usually used. Neonatal screening provides not only a method of early detection for individuals with sickle-cell disease, but also allows for identification of the groups of people that carry the sickle cell trait.
Folic acid and penicillin
Children born with sickle-cell disease will undergo close observation by the pediatrician and will require management by a haematologist to assure they remain healthy. These patients will take a 1 mg dose of folic acid daily for life. From birth to five years of age, they will also have to take penicillin daily due to the immature immune system that makes them more prone to early childhood illnesses.
The protective effect of sickle-cell trait does not apply to people with sickle cell disease; in fact, they are more vulnerable to malaria, since the most common cause of painful crises in malarial countries is infection with malaria. It has therefore been recommended that people with sickle-cell disease living in malarial countries should receive anti-malarial chemoprophylaxis for life.
Most people with sickle-cell disease have intensely painful episodes called vaso-occlusive crises. The frequency, severity, and duration of these crises, however, vary tremendously. Painful crises are treated symptomatically with analgesics; pain management requires opioid administration at regular intervals until the crisis has settled. For milder crises, a subgroup of patients manage on NSAIDs (such as diclofenac or naproxen). For more severe crises, most patients require inpatient management for intravenous opioids; patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) devices are commonly used in this setting. Diphenhydramine is also an effective agent that is frequently prescribed by doctors in order to help control any itching associated with the use of opioids.
Acute chest crisis
Management is similar to vaso-occlusive crisis, with the addition of antibiotics (usually a quinolone or macrolide, since cell wall-deficient ["atypical"] bacteria are thought to contribute to the syndrome), oxygen supplementation for hypoxia, and close observation. Should the pulmonary infiltrate worsen or the oxygen requirements increase, simple blood transfusion or exchange transfusion is indicated. The latter involves the exchange of a significant portion of the patients red cell mass for normal red cells, which decreases the percent of haemoglobin S in the patient's blood.
The first approved drug for the causative treatment of sickle-cell anaemia, hydroxyurea, was shown to decrease the number and severity of attacks in a study in 1995 (Charache et al.) and shown to possibly increase survival time in a study in 2003 (Steinberg et al.). This is achieved, in part, by reactivating fetal haemoglobin production in place of the haemoglobin S that causes sickle-cell anaemia. Hydroxyurea had previously been used as a chemotherapy agent, and there is some concern that long-term use may be harmful, but this risk has been shown to be either absent or very small and it is likely that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Blood transfusions are often used in the management of sickle-cell disease in acute cases and to prevent complications by decreasing the number of red blood cells (RBC) that can sickle by adding normal red blood cells. In children prophylactic chronic red blood cell (RBC) transfusion therapy has been shown to be efficacious to a certain extent in reducing the risk of first stroke or silent stroke when transcranial Doppler (TCD) ultrasonography shows abnormal increased cerebral blood flow velocities. In those who have sustained a prior stroke event it also reduces the risk of recurrent stroke and additional silent strokes.
Bone marrow transplants
Bone marrow transplants have proven to be effective in children. Bone marrow transplants are the only known cure for SCD. However, bone marrow transplants are difficult to obtain because of the specific HLA typing necessary. Ideally, a twin family member (syngeneic) or close relative (allogeneic) would donate the bone marrow necessary for transplantation.
About 90% of patients survive to age 20, and close to 50% survive beyond the fifth decade. In 2001, according to one study performed in Jamaica, the estimated mean survival for sickle-cell patients was 53 years old for men and 58 years old for women with homozygous SCD.
The highest frequency of sickle cell disease is found in tropical regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, India and the Middle-East. Migration of substantial populations from these high prevalence areas to low prevalence countries in Europe has dramatically increased in recent decades and in some European countries sickle-cell disease has now overtaken more familiar genetic conditions such as haemophilia and cystic fibrosis. In 2010, there were about 29,000 deaths attributed to sickle-cell disease globally.
Sickle-cell disease occurs more commonly among people whose ancestors lived in tropical and sub-tropical sub-Saharan regions where malaria is or was common. Where malaria is common, carrying a single sickle-cell allele (trait) confers a selective advantage—in other words, being a heterozygote is advantageous. Specifically, humans with one of the two alleles of sickle-cell disease show less severe symptoms when infected with malaria.
Three quarters of sickle-cell cases occur in Africa. A recent WHO report estimated that around 2% of newborns in Nigeria were affected by sickle cell anaemia, giving a total of 150,000 affected children born every year in Nigeria alone. The carrier frequency ranges between 10% and 40% across equatorial Africa, decreasing to 1–2% on the north African coast and <1% in South Africa. There have been studies in Africa that show a significant decrease in infant mortality rate, ages 2–16 months, because of the sickle-cell trait. This happened in areas that were known to be predominant areas of malarial cases.
The prevalence of the disease in the United States is approximately 1 in 5,000, mostly affecting Americans of Sub-Saharan African descent, according to the National Institutes of Health. In the United States, about 1 out of 500 African-American children and 1 in every 36,000 Hispanic-American children born will have sickle-cell anaemia. It is estimated that sickle-cell disease affects 90,000 Americans. Most infants with SCD born in the United States are now identified by routine neonatal screening. Forty-four states along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands currently provide universal neonatal screening for SCD. Sickle cell trait occurs among about 1:12 African-Americans and 1:100 Hispanic-Americans. It is estimated that 2.5 million Americans are heterozygous carriers for the sickle-cell trait.
As a result of population growth in African-Caribbean regions of overseas France and immigration from North and sub-Saharan Africa to mainland France, sickle-cell disease has become a major health problem in France. SCD has become the most common genetic disease in the country, with an overall birth prevalence of 1/2,415 in mainland France, ahead of phenylketonuria (1/10,862), congenital hypothyroidism (1/3,132), congenital adrenal hyperplasia (1/19,008) and cystic fibrosis (1/5,014) for the same reference period. In 2010, 31.5% of all newborns in mainland France (253,466 out of 805,958) were screened for SCD (this percentage was 19% in 2000). 341 newborns with SCD and 8,744 heterozygous carriers were found representing 1.1% of all newborns in mainland France. The Paris metropolitan district (Île-de-France) is the region that accounts for the largest number of newborns screened for SCD (60% in 2010). The second largest number of at-risk is in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur at nearly 43.2% and the lowest number is in Brittany at 5.5%.
In the United Kingdom, all babies receive a blood test to screen for this condition.
In Saudi Arabia about 4.2% of the population carry the sickle-cell trait and 0.26% have sickle-cell disease. The highest prevalence is in the Eastern province where approximately 17% of the population carry the gene and 1.2% have sickle-cell disease. In 2005 in Saudi Arabia a mandatory pre-marital test including HB electrophoresis was launched and aimed to decrease the incidence of SCD and thalassemia.
Sickle-cell disease is common in many parts of India, where the prevalence has ranged from 9.4 to 22.2% in endemic areas.
The first modern report of sickle-cell disease may have been in 1846, where the autopsy of an executed runaway slave was discussed; the key findings was the absence of the spleen. There were also reports amongst African slaves in the dentistry. He died of pneumonia in 1916 and is buried in the Catholic cemetery at Sauteurs in the north of Grenada. Shortly after the report by Herrick, several other cases appeared in the medical literature. In the description by Verne Mason in 1922, the name "sickle cell anemia" is first used. Childhood problems related to sickle cells disease were not reported until the 1930s, despite the fact that this cannot have been uncommon in African-American populations.
The Memphis physician Lemuel Diggs, a prolific researcher into sickle cell disease, first introduced the distinction between sickle cell disease and trait in 1933, although it took until 1949 until the genetic characteristics were elucidated by James V. Neel and E.A. Beet. 1949 was the year when Linus Pauling described the unusual chemical behaviour of haemoglobin S, and attributed this to an abnormality in the molecule itself. The actual molecular change in HbS was described in the late 1950s BY Vernon Ingram. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw further understanding in the link between malaria and sickle cell disease. In 1954, the introduction of haemoglobin electrophoresis allowed the discovery of particular subtypes, such as HbSC disease.
Large scale natural history studies and further intervention studies were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to the more widespread use of prophylaxis against pneumococcal infections amongst other interventions. The 1990s saw the development of hydroxycarbamide, and reports of cure through bone marrow transplantation appeared in 2007.
No trials of gene therapy for sickle-cell disease were found in a systematic review published in October 2014.
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Library resources about
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- Tapper, Melbourne (1999). In the blood: sickle cell anemia and the politics of race. University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Sickle cell at DMOZ
- Sickle Cell Anaemia OER Project