Evaluation of Splenomegaly


The spleen is a secondary lymphoid organ that lies in intraperitoneally in the left hypochondrium, abuting the diaphragm. It spans from the 9th to 11th rib and weighs between 150-200g. Spleen is supplied by the splenic artery and drains into portal circulation via the splenic vein. It is a part of reticuloendothelial system, immune system and is a site of in utero haematopoiesis. The spleen is enlarged in a diverse set of disease of the above mentioned  systems and in portal hypertension.

Normal Functions of the Spleen

The normal functions of the spleen include

  1. Reticuloendothelial functions: The spleen as a component of the reticuloendothelial system is involved in clearing the blood of ageing or damaged erythrocytes, antibody coated cells and opsonised bacteria. It also removes particles from red cells. The spleen ensures that the red cell in circulation have adequate deformability for passage through microcirculation.
  2. Immune Functions: The spleen is a part of the immune system and plays a role in mounting the immune response . Splenectomy increases the risk of infections particularly with capsulated organisms (see Overwhelming Post-Splenectomy Infection (OPSI)).
  3. Haematopoiesis: Spleen is the site for haematopoiesis in utero. In extrauterine life spleen can become a site of haematopoiesis in disease.

Palpating the Spleen

  1. Palpation of the spleen should start from the right iliac fossa. If this is not done there is a risk of missing a massively enlarged spleen.
  2. Move towards the left costal margin in a direction perpendicular to the margin. Move with each breath. At every position ask the patient to take a deep breath. The tip of the spleen will hit your palpating finger.
  3. If the spleen does not hit your finger move your palpating finger to a position closer to coastal margin, ask the patient to take a deep breath and repeat the procedure described above till your finger hits the costal margin.
  4. If the spleen is felt measure the perpendicular distance between the tip and the left coastal margin. Also note the texture and presence of tenderness.
  5. If the spleen is not felt repeat the procedure with patients lying on right side.
  6. Large spleen can rupture with aggressive palpation. The spleen lies directly under the anterior abdominal wall. One does not need to be aggressive.

Causes of Splenomegaly

The spleen enlarges from the left coastal margin in the direction of the umbilicus. It needs to enlarge 2-3 times before it is palpable. Splenomegaly may be caused be increase in portal venous pressure, infiltrative conditions or when the spleen function needs to increase. Clinically it is useful to classify splenomegaly by size. Massive splenomegaly is enlargement of the spleen beyond the umbilicus. The causes of massive splenomegaly include

  1. Malignant: Chronic myeloid leukaemia, Idiopathic myelofibrois, hairy cell leukaemia, splenic marginal zone lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, prolymphocytic leukaemia
  2. Infections: Tropical splenomegaly, AIDS with Mycobacterium avium complex infections, Kala-azar (visceral leishmaniasis)
  3. Others: β-Thalassaemia major and intermedia, Extrahepatic portal venous obstructions,megaloblastic anaemia, diffuse splenic haemagiosis

The causes of splenomegaly include the above and the following

  1. Portal Hypertension: Cirrhosis, Budd-Chairy syndrome, splenic vein thosmbosis, congestive heart failure, hepatic schistosomiasis
  2. Increased splenic function:
    1. Increased functional demands: Haemolytic anaemia commonly hereditary spherocytosis, autoimmune haemolytic anaemia, β-thalassaemia, early sickle cell anaemia, sickle cell β-thalassaemia,
    2. Infections:
      1. Bacterial: Septicaemia, bacterial endocarditis, splenic abscess, brucellosis, tuberculosis, AIDS with Mycobacterium avium complex infections, secondary syphilis
      2. Viral: Viral hepatitis, infectious mononucleosis, cytomegalovirus,
      3. Parasitic: Malaria , Kala-azar (visceral leishmaniasis), Trypanosomiasis,
      4. Fungal: Histoplasmosis
    3. Immune Disorders:
      1. Autoimmune diseases: Rhumatoid arthritis (Felty’s syndrome), systemic lupus erythrmatosis
      2. Other immune disorders: Immune haemolytic anaemia, immune neutropenia, drug reaction, serum sickness, sarcoidosis
      3. Haemophgocytic lymphohistiocytosis
  3. Infiltrations
    1. Haematological Malignancy:
      1. Myeloid: Chronic myeloid leukaemia, myeloproliferative disease, idiopathic myelofibrosis, polycythaemia vera
      2. Lymphoid: Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, hairy cell leukaemia, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, prolymphocytic leukaemia, splenic marginal zone lymphoma, angioimmnoblastic T cell lymphoma
      3. Other: Histiocytosis X, eosinophilic granuloma
    2. Storage disorders:Gaucher disease, Niemann-Pick, Tangier disease, mucopolysachroidosis
    3. Other Infiltrations: Amyloid
  4. Others: Iron deficiency anaemia

 

History and Physical Examination

  1. Fever: Fever is a feature of splenomegaly due to infections, inflammations or malignancy, particularly haematological malignancy. Usually the fever is low grade. High grade fever suggests splenic abscess.
  2. Painful splenemegaly: The nature of pain associated with splenomegaly varies with the cause of splenomegaly.
    1. An enlargement spleen from any cause can cause a dragging pain in the left upper quadrant.
    2. Acute pain left upper quadrant pain is a feature of is a feature of splenic infarct and splenic abscess. Sickle Cell anaemia is associated with small fibrotic spleen because of repeated splenic infarcts. Early in disease the spleen enlarges. Patients may present with acute pain from splenic infarcts. Enlarged spleen from any cause is predisposed to infarction. Acute pain in the left upper quadrant is also a feature of acute splenic abscess.
    3. Splenic vein thrombosis can cause splenomegly and pain in left upper quadrant or epigastric region. It may also cause generalised abdominal pain.
    4. Pancreatitis presents with abdominal pain and can cause painful splenomegaly secondary to splenic vein thrombosis.
    5. Alcohol induced pain is an uncommon but unique feature of Hodgkin lymphoma. Spleen is a common site of involvement by Hodgkin lymphoma. Such patients may have alcohol induced pain in an enlarged spleen.
  3. Pallor: Pallor in a patient with splenomegaly suggests a diagnosis of haemolytic anaemia, haemolymphatic malignancy and infective endocarditis.
  4. Clubbing: Clubbing with splenomegaly is a feature of infective endocarditis and cirrhosis of the liver.
  5. Skin rash: Skin rash in a patient with splenomegaly is seen in systemic lupus erthomatosis, infective endocarditis, lymphoma (angioimmuniblastic T Cell lymphoma, mycosis fungiodes, skin involvement with lymphoma) and drug reaction.  Each of these conditions have a distinct type of rash.
  6. Skin Pigmentation: Hyperpigmantation suggests be seen in hemachromatosis or megaloblastic anaemia. The patients with megaloblastic anaemia may also have knuckle pigmentation.
  7. Jaundice: Jaundice with enlarged spleen is a feature of haemolytic anaemia. The jaundice is usually achloruric. Patients with haemolytic anaemia are predisposed to gallstones. Obstruction of the biliary system from a calculus dislodged from the gall bladder can cause obstructive jaundice with abdominal pain and signs of acute inflammation. Splenomegaly with jaundice is a feature of advanced cirrhosis. Patients with advanced cirrhosis almost always have ascites.
  8. Lymphadenopathy: The enlargement of lymph nodes and spleen is a feature of lymphoid malignancies or diseases that stimulate the lymphoid systems viz. infections and autoimmune diseases and lymphoid malignancy.
  9. Joint symptoms: Arthropathy with splenomegaly suggests the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lypus erythrmatosis or haematochromatosis.
  10. Oral symptoms: infectious mononucleosis is charecterized by pharyngitis and generalised lymphadenopathy. Bleeding gums and/or gum hypertrophy suggests a diagnosis of leukaemia. Lymphoma can cause tomsillar enlargement. Amyloid is charectetized by macroglossia.
  11. Evidence of Portal Hypertension and Liver Cell Failure: Patients with portal hypertension often have history of haemetemesis. Examination may reveal periumbilical veins (capital medusae), anterior abdominal or flank veins. Patients with evidence liver cell failures with portal hypertension (e.g. jaundice, ascites, spider angiomas, asterxis etc. see Portal Hypertension) have cirrhosis. When the jugular venous pressure is high a diagnosis of congestive cardiac failure should be considered.

Laboratory Evaluation

Haemogram; The haemogram is the most important laboratory test in evaluating a patient with splenomegaly. The significance of findings on haemogram is described in the table below.

Haemogram Finding Conditions
Pancytopenia Hypersplenism, Lymphoma (splenic marginal zone lymphoma), Hairy cell leukaemia, Myelofibrosis, systemic lupus erythrmotosis
Neutrophilic Leucocytosis Acute infections, inflammation
Leucocytosis with premature white cells Chronic myeloid leumaemia, Myeloproliferative disease, Myeloproliferative/Myelodysplastic overlap, Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia
Leucoerythroblastic anaemia Idiopathic myelofibrosis, Bone marrow infiltration
Polycythaemia Polycythaemia vera
Atypical Lymphocytes Infectious mononucleosis
Thrombocytosis Myeloproliferative disease (Chronic myeloid leukaemia, idiopathic myelofibrosis, polycythaemia vera), chronic infections like tuberculosis
Parasites Malaria, bartonelosizs, babesiosis

Other investigations are dictated by the clinical presentations. Commonly performed investigations include biochemistry, microbiology, echocardiography, endoscopy and biopsy of any lymph node or any other mass. Other investigation may be performed as indicated

Imaging

Imaging is an important aspect of evaluation of the spleen but is beyond the scope of this article. Several good reviews exist e.g Singapore Med J 56(3):133-144.

Oral Iron Therapy


Iron deficiency anaemia is treated by iron supplementation that may be administered orally or parenterally.  Oral iron absorption is inefficient, is interfered by food and is associated with high incidence of gastrointestinal adverse effects. About 17% of the world population is estimated to be suffering from iron deficiency. Iron deficiency is more common the poorer regions of the world. These regions have limited resources allocated for healthcare. Oral iron is inexpensive and convenient to administer making it the modality of choice for initiation of treatment of iron deficiency. The availability of safer parenteral iron preparations that can replete the iron deficit in one dose has reduced the threshold of switching a person intolerant to iron to parenteral iron.

Oral Iron Absorption

Dietary iron may be heme iron or non-heme iron. Heme iron is absorbed after oxidation to hematin. The absorption of heme iron is more efficient. Dietary non-heme iron is present in the ferric state. Ferric iron is insoluble and needs to be reduced to ferrous iron. Gastric acidity aids this conversion. Medicinal iron is most often administered in the ferrous state. Ferrous iron tends to oxidize to ferric iron at physiological pH. Gastric acid lowers the pH and retards oxidation. The absorption of non-heme iron is aided by ascorbate, animal proteins, human milk, keto sugars, organics, amino acids that form soluble chelates and retarded by phytates present in grains and vegetables, dietary fibre, polyphemols present in tea, coffee and wine, phosphates and phosphoproteins present in egg yolk, bovine milk, calcium and zinc. For a detailed discussion on iron absorption see intestinal iron absorption. Preparations containing iron in the ferric state have a 3-4 fold lower bioavailability than ferrous iron preparations. Ferric iron is insoluble in the alkaline medium of the duodenum and needs to be converted to ferrous iron (ScientificWorldJournal. 2012; 2012: 846824).

Oral Iron Preperations

Oral iron preparations may be heme or non-heme. Heme iron is available as heme iron polymer. Non-heme iron may be in the ferrous or ferric form. Carbonyl is pure iron prepared from the decomposition of iron pentacarbonyl. The preparations are listed in the table below.

 

Preparations Iron Content
Ferrous Sulfate, anhydrous 30%
Ferrous Fumarate 33%
Ferrous Sulfate 20%
Ferrous carbonate, anhydrous 48%
Ferrous Gluconate 12%
Ferric Ammonium Citrate 18%
Ferric bisglycinate 20%
Ferric pyrophosphate 12%
Carbonyl iron ~100%
Heme-iron peptide 100%
Polysaccharide iron complex 100%

Indications of Oral Iron Therapy

Oral iron is indicated for prevention and treatment of iron deficiency anaemia. The rate of iron delivery is insufficient to provide iron when erythropoiesis is stimulated by erythrocyte stimulating agents like erythropoietin and darbepoetin. Oral iron should not be used for such patients.

Trial of Oral Iron Therapy

Serum ferritin is an indicator of total body iron. It is also an acute phase reactant. Low ferritin indicates iron deficiency. The traditional cutoff is 12ng/mL. At this cutoff the sensitivity of ferritin for the diagnosis of iron deficiency anaemia is only 25%. The sensitivity can be increased to 92% with a positive predictive value of 83% if a cutoff of 30ng/mL is used. A trial of oral iron may be given if other causes of anaemia are excluded.

Contraindications to Oral Iron Therapy

  1. Primary hemachromatosis: Primary hemochromatosis is a is absolute contraindication
  2. Peptic ulcer, regional enteritis, or ulcerative colitis can be exacerbated by oral iron.
  3. β-Thalassaemia trait is a relative contraindication. Some patients may develop iron overload. Patients should be given iron only if iron deficiency is established by laboratory investigation.

Failure of Oral Iron Therapy

  1. Failure to take prescribed medication: Oral iron therapy causes gastrointestinal adverse effects in a large proportion patients that are severe enough in some to discontinue therapy. A detailed history must be taken to ascertain that the patient has taken the prescribed dose.
  2. Incorrect or incomplete diagnosis: Iron deficiency anaemia is hypochromic microcytic (see Evaluating Anaemia). Other diseases that result in hypochromic microcytic anaemia are thalassaemia and anaemia of chronic disease. Both are common and can both be confused with iron deficiency as well as co-exist with iron deficiency. Thalassemia trait affects about 1.5% of the world population. About 1.4% of the population is estimated to have anaemia due to infection, inflammation or chronic renal disease (https://dx.doi.org/10.1016%2FS0140-6736(15)60692-4). Incidental occurrence of iron deficiency with thalassaemia trait or anaemia of chronic disease will result in an incomplete response to iron supplementation. Some inflammatory conditions e.g. ulcerative colitis cause blood loss. Blood loss may be seen due to use of non-steroidal inflammatory agents in patients with autoimmune arthritis. Anaemia in these patients shows an incomplete response to iron supplementation because part of the anaemia results from chronic inflammation.
  3. Insufficient amount or inappropriately taken oral iron: The ideal dose is 200mg of elemental iron taken 2 hours before or 1 hour after food. Food interferes with iron absorption but also relieves gastrointestinal adverse effects. Gastrointestinal adverse effects are related to dose. Prescriptions of oral iron may have an insufficient dose or may be administered after food to reduce gastrointestinal adverse effects. This results in an inappropriate haemoglobin response.
  4. Iron demand exceeding intake: Iron demand may exceed supply if there is continued blood loss or in patients where erythropoiesis is stimulated with an erythropoiesis stimulating agent like erythropoietin or darbepoietin. In both these situations the rate of oral iron absorption limits iron availability. These patients need intravenous iron.
  5. Malabsorption of iron: Food interferes with oral iron absorption. Ferrous iron is rapidly oxidised to ferric iron at physiological pH. Gastric acid reduces ferric iron to ferrous iron. Proton pump inhibitors, H2 antagonists, antacids and gastrectomy reduce acidity and can interfere with iron absorption. Iron malabsorption may be seen as part of a malabsorption syndrome. Iron deficiency refractory to iron is rare. Iron refractory iron deficiency anaemia is a disorder resulting from mutations in the TMPRSS6. This mutations results in increase hepcidin production which is sensed by the body as an iron repeated state. Iron is not absorbed despite iron deficiency. The patients do not respond to oral iron and shows a partial response to parenteral iron.

 Interactions

  1. Interaction of iron with food: The absorption of non-heme iron is affected by food (See Intestinal Iron Absorption).
    1. Foods enhancing iron absorption: Ascorbate, animal proteins, human milk, keto sugars, organics, amino acids that form soluble chelates with iron enhance absorption of non-heme iron.
    2. Inhibiting iron absorption: `Inhibitors of absorption of non-heme iron include
      1. Phytates present in grains and vegetables
      2. Dietary fibre
      3. Polypohenols present in tea, coffee and wine,
      4. Phosphates and phosphoproteins present in egg yolk, bovine milk
      5. Calcium and zinc.
  2. Drug-Iron interactions
    1. Iron decreases the absorption of ACE inhibitors, bisphosphonates, levodopa, levothyroxine, penicillamine, quinolone and tetracyclines
    2. The absorption of iron is decreased by drugs that reduce gastric pH. These include H2 antagonists(Cimetidine, ranitidine, famotidine), proton pump inhibitors (omeprazole, pantoprqzole, esomeprazole, lansoprazole, rabeprazole, etc), antacids and cholesterol lowering agents (Cholestyramine and Colestipol).

Dose

  1. Children: 3–6 mg/kg daily in 3 divided doses.
  2. Adult: Usual therapeutic dosage: 50–100 mg 3 times daily but a dose of 200mg produces the maximal results. A smaller dosages (e.g. 60–120 mg daily) may be given if patients are intolerant of oral iron, but response in such patients takes a longer time.

Side Effects Of Oral Iron

  1. Gastrointestinal: The commonest adverse effects of iron are gastrointestinal symptoms, including heartburn, nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea or constipation. These may be seen in up to a fifth of the patients. They can be reduced by decreasing the dose or taking iron after food. Taking iron with food can reduce the absorption by about 50%. Enteric coated preparation decrease the side effects by delaying the release of iron. Delaying release may bypass the duodenum that is the site of absorption of iron. The decrease in absorption is particularly marked in patients with aclorhydria as they can not dissolve the enteric coating. The stool of patients taking iron supplements may be discoloured black or green.
  2. Discolouration of teeth: Iron syrups may cause staining to teeth.
  3. Iron overload: Iron overload from oral iron therapy is rare. It has been described in patients with hemachromatosis and chronic haemolytic anaemias.
  4. Iron Poisoning: Iron poisoning usually occurs in children, particularly those younger than 5 years of age, because of accidental ingestion of medicinal iron. Children are likely to ingest these believing them to be candies.

Sickle β-Thalassaemia


Sickle cell anaemia and β-thalassaemia are two common haemoglobinopathies. Co-inheritance of the two is called sickle β-thalassaemia. Sickle β-thalassaemia seen in Africa, throughout the  Mediterranean, Arabian Peninsula and sporadically in india. It has heterogeneous clinical presentation. The severity depends on the severity of the thalassaemia allele and the extent to which the impaired haemoglobin synthesis is compensated by foetal haemoglobin synthesis.

Pathophysiology

With a very few exceptions (Blood 1989; 74: 1817-22) the sickle cell and the thalassaemia gene are arranged in trans i.e on different chromosomes (βsthal). One allele is inherited from the mother and one from the father. One parent carries the a β-thalassaemia trait the other parent has a sickle cell disease that may be sickle cell anaemia, sickle β-thalassaemia or a trait. Sickle β-thalassaemia in Africa and India/Arabia is mild whereas the patients from the Mediterranean region have severe disease. As mentioned above the differences in severity have to do with severity of the β-thalassaemia and the degree to which the impaired haemoglobin A synthesis is compensated by HbF. Weatherall suggested that patients with HbA <15% follow a course similar to severe HbA and those with HbA 20-30% follow a mild course.

  1. African sickle β-thalassaemia: African patients have a mild β-thalassaemia resulting in a relatively higher HbA level and a lower risk of sickling. These patients run a mild clinical course.
  2. Arab/Indian sickle β-thalassaemia: Patients from India and the Arabian peninsula have a sickle cell haplotype that is associated with a high HbF production. The HbF retards sickling. High levels of HbF attenuate symptoms. Patients carrying this haplotype have mild symptoms even when the inherit a severe β- chain defect. Another reason of a mild phenotype in India is the interaction with α thalassaemia.
  3. Mediterranean sickle β-thalassaemia: Mediterranean patients usually inherit a severe form of  β-thalassaemia. These patients have severe sickling because there is very little HbA or HbF to offset inhibit the crystallisation of HbS. Despite only one chromosome carrying HbS the phenotype of these patients resembles sickle cell anaemia.

Clinical Picture of Sickle-β Thalassaemia

The features of sickle-β thalassaemia resemble those of other sickling disease. It is a chronic haemolytic anaemia the course of which is interrupted by acute exacerbations known as crisis. The manifestations include haemolytic anaemia, painful and other crisis, leg ulcers, priapism and complications of pregnancy. The severity of symptoms is variable. One end of the spectrum are patients, usually of origin Mediterranean descent, whose presentation is indistinguishable from sickle cell anaemia. These patients have inherit severe forms of β (β0) chain defects. Those with sickle cell-β+ thalassaemia have milder symptoms. These patients are typically of African ancestory. Unlike patients with sickle cell anaemia patients with sickle-β thalassaemia may have splenomegaly that is more prominent patients with sickle cell-β+ thalassaemia. The spleen is usually moderately enlarged but massive splenomegaly that may be associated hypersplenism neccesisating splenectomy has been reported. The effect of co-inheritance of α-thalassaemia is small. A decrease in the frequency of acute chest syndrome and leg ulcers and a higher persistence of splenomegaly is seen. Co-inheritance of α thalassemia is one of the reasons that sickle-β thalassaemia runs a milder course in India (the other being the high HbF due to the Arab-Indian haplotype of HbS).

Diagnosis

The haematological findings vary with severity. More severe phenotypes shows greater anaemia, lower MCHC, higher reticulocytes, HbF and HbA2. A variable number of sickle cells may be found. Unlike sickle cell anaemia both forms of sickle cell-β thalassaemia have an elevated HbA2. The distribution of HbA2 is very similar to heterozygous β thalassaemia. The levels of HbF are variable. High levels are found in patients with the Arab-Indian and Senegal haplotype of HbS.

Sickle cell-β0 thalassaemia needs to be differentiated from sickle cell anaemia. The presentation of both may be identical. However an offspring of a sickle cell-β0 thalassaemia patients and a carrier of β-thalassamia trait has a 25% risk of suffering from β-thalassaemia major. The offspring of a patients with sickle cell anaemia and a carrier of β thalassaemia trait does not carry the risk of β thalassaemia major. Though sickle cell-β0 thalassaemia is characterised by an elevated HbA2 and splenomegaly this can not be relied upon to differentiate between the two conditions. Family and DNA studies are needed. If the studies show one parent to be heterozygous for HbS and the other a carrier of β thalassaemia trait no further studies are needed. If any of the parent has a phenotype of sickle cell anaemia DNA studies may be the only way to make the diagnosis.

Sickle Cell β thalassaemia in cis

Almost all patients with sickle-β thalassaemia have the disorder in trans i.e. the one β globin gene is thalassaemic and the other has a the sickle mutation. Patients with HbS and thalassaemia gene in cis have been described. These patients have a mild hemolysis, HbA2 levels were 6%–7%, HbF approximately 3% and HbS of 10%–11%.

Treatment

The symptoms of sickle-β thalassaemia are due to sickling need to be treated accordingly.

Clinical Features of Megaloblastic Anaemia


Megaloblastic anaemia is a macrocytic anaemia resulting from the deficiency of vitamin B12 or folic acid characterised by the presence of megaloblasts in the bone marrow. It has haematological and neurological manifestations. The haematological manifestations are seen with folate as well as vitamin B12 deficiency. Folate deficiency in adults does not affect the nervous system.

Cobalamin deficiency is slow and “pure”. Folate deficiency is rapid and “impure”. Deficiecy of vitamin B12 occurs because of loss of intrinsic factor resulting in an isolated defect of B12 absorption. No other nutrients are affected. The body stores of B12 can last months. This results in B12 deficiency being a slow and “pure” deficiency. Symptoms come on slowly, over months. Folate deficiency evolves relatively quickly and is most commonly because of alcoholism or malabsorption. It is associated with other deficiencies and is rapid and “not pure”.

 

Manifestationf o megaloblastic anaemia

Figure 1. Clinical Manifestations of Megaloblastic Anaemia

Haematological Manifestations

Haematological changes resulting from vitamin B12 deficiency and folate deficiency are indistinguishable. Megaloblastic anaemias are macrocytic anaemia but macrocytosis is not specific to megaloblastic anaemia. It is however exceptional for other diseases characterised by macrocytosis to have an mean capsular volume (MCV) > 110fl.  This value can considered the threshold above which an anaemia is unlikely to be anything other than megaloblastic anaemia.

The earliest change in a megaloblastic anaemia is macrocytosis. This precedes changes in erythrocyte indices. Changes in mean capsular haemoglobin (MCH) follow and then the MCV rises. Haemoglobin usually falls after the MCV increases to >97 fl. As the severity of anaemia increases the peripheral smear shows aniscytosis and poikilocytosis, nucleated cells, Howell-Jolly bodies and Cabot’s ring. Microcytes and erythrocyte fragments that represent dyserythropoiesis may be seen. Polychromasia is absent and this distinguishes megaloblastic anaemia from haemolytic anaemia.

The term megaloblatic anaemia is a misnomer. The disease is actually a panmyelosis.  Erythroid, myeloid and megakaryocytic series are affected. Thrombocytopenia and leucopenia (neutropenia and to a lesser extent lymphopenia) usually occur late in the course. It is uncommon for patients with mild anaemia to have platelets and neutrophils but occasionally changes in leucocytes and/or platelets may dominate.

Iron deficiency or β-thalassaemia trait result in microcytosis and hypochromia and may incidentally co-exist with megaloblastic anaemia. Co-existence of either of these diseases with megaloblastic anaemia may mask macrocytosis of megaloblastic anaemia. Presence of hypersegmented neutrophils in a patients with normocytic normochromic anaemia should raise the suspicion of a megaloblastic anaemia co-existing with Iron deficiency or β-thalassaemia trait.

Neurological Manifestations

Cobalamine deficiceny causes neurological dysfunction. Folate deficiency causes symptoms only in children. Children with inborn errors of folate metabolism may have myelopathy, brain dysfunction and seizures.

The neurological manifestations of B12 deficiency are a result of a combination of upper motor neuron manifestations from subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord, sensory and lower motor neuron manifestations from peripheral neuropathy and neurophychiatratic manifestations. Subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord (SACD) is a degerative disease of the spinal cord involving the posterior and lateral column (corticospinal and spinoceribellar tracts) that starts in the cervical and the thoracic region.

The earliest neurological manifestations are impaired sense of vibration and position and symmetric dysesthasia that involve the lower limb. This is frequently associated with sensory ataxia. With progression spastic paraparesis develops. The patients have brisk knee reflexes, reflecting an upper motor neuron involvement and depressed ankle reflex, reflecting a peripheral neuropathy. Bladder involvement is unusual. Some patients may have optic atrophy.

Neuropsychiatric manifestation include memory loss, depression, hypomania, paranoid psychosis with auditory and visual hallucinations.

Other manifestations

Skin and nails can show pigmentations. Mucosa of the villi undergoes megalobkastic change resulting in temporary malabsorption.

Response to therapy

Haematological Recovery

  • Day 1: Feeling better
  • Day2-3: Reticulocytosis appears
  • Day 7-10: Peak retuculocytosis
  • Day 15 onwards: Neutrophilic hypersegmentation disappears
  • Day 56 (8 weeks): Blood counts become fully .normal

Neurological Recovery

Neurologic improvement begins within the first week also and is typically complete in 6 weeks to 3 months. Its course is not as predictable as hematologic response and may not be complete.

 

 

Evolution and Spread of HbS


The gene for β globin (OMIM  is present on chromosome 11 (11p15.4) along with other globin genes (ε, γ, γ and δ). This is known as the β-globin cluster . Individuals carrying identical genes on the β-globin gene cluster may not have identical DNA sequences in non-codeing regions of the DNA of the cluster. The non-coding regions include segments of DNA between genes and introns within genes. . Differences in DNA exist between individuals every 1000-2000 bases in the form of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Single nucleotide polymorphisms are variations in a single nucleotide that occurs at a specific position in the genome. Many of these differences have no consequences on gene expression because either they do not result in change in amino acid sequence or they occur in regions of DNA that neither code for the gene nor regulate the gene. SNPs evolve by spontaneous mutations over time. The lesser the number of such differences between two individuals closer the individuals are the each other genetically (and in terms of evolution). Fewer differences in SNPs between individuals mean a more recent common ancestor.

One of the meanings of the word haplotype is a pattern of SNPs. A haplotype may be considered as a DNA “environment” in which the gene(s) occurs. This “environment” is created by the sequence of single nucleotide polymorphisms in which the gene(s) exists. As mentioned above differences in SNPs (and hence the “environment” the gene(s) exist in) evolve by spontaneous mutations over period of time. Fewer the differences between the “environments” the genes occurs in the more the likelihood that they come from related individuals.

HbS results from a single base substitution in the codon 6 of the β-globin gene. GAG becomes GTA resulting in substitution of valine for glutamate. This change results in a haemoglobin that crystallizes in hypoxic conditions resulting in a haemolytic anaemia. HbS occurs in diverse population groups including African, Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Indian. Is the haplotype of the HbS gene in these regions similar?

The HbS mutation occurs on five different haplotypes four African and one Arab-Indian. The mutation is the same (GAG to GTA on codon 6) but the SNPs are different. The haplotypes are

  1. Senegal: The Senegal HbS haplotype is found in Atlantic West Africa and Portugal
  2. Benin: The Benin HbS haplotype is found Central West Africa, Northern Africa and Mediterranean Europe (Greece, Sicily)
  3. Central African Republic or Bantu: The Central African Republic or Bantu is found in South Central and Eastern Africa
  4. Cameroon: The Cameroon haplotype is found in the Eton ethnic group of eastern Cameroon
  5. Arab-Indian: The Arab-Indian haplotype is the only non-African phenotype of HbS found in the eastern oasis of Saudi Arabia and India.

Origin of Haplotypes

There are two theories about the origin of haplotypes. The first, and the more accepted one, states that the five haplotypes arose from five independent mutations. An alternative hypothesis states that HbS mutation occurred only once and spread to other haplotypes by gene conversion.

 

Haplotypes and Severity of Symptoms

Symptoms of sickle cell anaemia are a consequence of crystallisation of haemoglobin under hypoxic conditions. HbF inhibits sickling. Patients with high HbF have fewer symptoms. The Arab-Indian and the Senegal haplotype are associated with higher HbF levels (17% and 12.4% respectively). In general patients carrying these haplotypes have milder symptoms than the Bantu or Benin haplotypes (Blood 2014; 123: 481)

 

Haplotypes and Human Migrations

Trade, conquests and human migrations (voluntary and slave trade) have disseminated the African haplotypes beyond Africa.

  1. The Mediterranean: Most of the Mediterranean (Greece and Scilly) has the Benin haplotype. This reflects pre-historic migrations from Central West Africa along the then fertile Sahara to North Africa. From here it spread to the Mediterranean via the interactions (Trade and wars) between the two regions. The only exception is Portugal. Portugal has the Senegal haplotype which reflects the trading contacts between Portugal and Atlantic West Africa (Angola and Mozambique).
  2. Americas: Neither the native americans nor the original European settlers to the Americas carried the HbS gene. HbS was imported to the Americas with the slaves from Africa. Jamaica was an important slave import hub and records for where tthe slaves arrived from are available. Jamaica has 73% Benin haplotype, 17% Bantu and 10% Senegal haplotypes. These numbers are close to the actual number of slaves who arrived in Jamaica from regions of Africa where these haplotypes are prevalent. Similarly the distribution of haplotype correspond to the origins of slaves in Baltimore and South Carolina (Mariam Bloom. Understanding Sickle Cell Disease, Page 34).
  3. Arab or Indian: It is not clear if the Arab-Indian haplotype originated in India or Saudi Arabia. But considering that all of tribal India has only one haplotype but the East and West Arabian Peninsula have different haplotypes it is possible that the haplotype originated in India.
  4. Spread to Other Parts: As opposed to the era of slave trade modern migration of people in the recent past have been voluntary. These populations have spread across the world as have those form mediterranean but to a lesser extent. These migrations have introduced the HbS gene in areas where it was not indigenous.

 

Anaemia with Hyperbilirubinaemia


A 49-year-old female presented with dyspnoea on exertion of 1 month duration. Examination reviled pallor and icterus. There was no lymphadenopathy, clubbing, koilonychia, platonychia, petechiae or purpura. There was no oedema of feet. The pulse was 90/min and the blood pressure 130/70 mm of Hg. Examination of the respiratory, cardiac and nervous systems did not show any abnormality. There was no organomegaly.

The haemoglobin was 4.9 g/dL with an erythrocyte count 1.37 x 1012/L, haematocrit of 16%, MCV of 116.78 fL, MCH of 35.77 pg and MCHC 30.63 of g/L.  The leucocytes count was 2800 with 35% neutrophils and 65% lymphocytes. The platelet count was 90 x 109/L. The peripheral smear showed macrocytosis and anisocytosis. Hypersegmented neutrophils were seen. The reticulocyte count was 3%.

The bilirubin was 2.1 mg/dL with a direct bilirubin of 1.8mg/dL and an indirect bilirubin of 0.3mg/dL. The Lactate dehydrogenase was 1417IU (normal 105 – 333 IU/L).

Anaemia and unconjugated hyperbilirubinaemia are characteristic of haemolysis. Does this patient have haemolytic anaemia?

Haemolysis shortens erythrocyte lifespan and results in increases haemoglobin breakdown. Haemoglobin is made of heme and globin. Heme consists of porphyrin ring at the centre of which is iron in the ferrous state. Iron released from catabolism of heme is reused. The porphyrin ring is catabolised to bilirubin. The bilirubin is transported to the liver for conjugation and excretion (see haemoglobin catabolism). Patients of haemolytic anaemia have unconjugated hyperbilirubinaemia because the increased bilirubin production overwhelms the hepatic bilirubin conjugation capacity.

One of the characteristics of megaloblastic anaemia is ineffective erythropoiesis. Ineffective erythropoiesis is defined as a sub-optimal (fewer) production of mature erythrocytes from a proliferating pool of immature erythroblasts. Each immature erythroblast produces less than the optimal number of erythrocytes because of premature death of erythroid precursors including haemoglobinized precursors. The haemoglobin released from haemoglobinized erythroid precursors is catabolised in the same manner as haemoglobin released from lysed erythrocytes (see haemoglobin catabolism). Megaloblastic anaemias are associated with unconjugated hyperbilirubinaemia because of death of haemoglobinized erythroid precursors.

The treatment of haemolytic anaemia and megaloblastic anaemia are different? How does one differentiate megaloblastic anaemia from that because of haemolytic anaemia? Does this patients have a haemolytic anaemia or megaloblastic anaemia?

Haemolytic anaemia is characterised by shortened erythrocyte survival. Erythrocytes survival is estimated by the use of radionucleotides something that is not possible at most centres. In clinical practice, a shortened erythrocyte survival is inferred from a high reticulocyte count. Reticulocytes are erythrocytes that have been produced in the preceding 24 hours. The erythrocytes survival is about 120 days and about 1% of erythrocytes are produced every day. Consistent with this the normal reticulocyte count is 0.5-1.5%.In patients of haemolytic anaemia, ddestruction of erythrocytes is matched by an increased production by the bone marrow. This manifests as reticulocytosis (see reticulocyte count). Megaloblastic anaemia occurs because of decreased production of erythrocytes and this manifests as reticulocytopenia. The difference between haemolytic anaemia and megaloblastic anaemia is the reticulocytosis in the former reticulocytopenia in the latter. This patient had a high reticulcoyte count but after correction both the reticulocyte production index [0.43] and corrected reticulocyte count [1.07%] were low excluding haemolysis. This patient was evaluated for megaloblastic anaemia.

The haemogram has clues to differentiate between haemolytic anaemia and megaloblastic anaemia. These include

  1. A very high MCV: The MCV is very high. Patients with haemolytic anaemia have a mild elevation in MCV. An MCV value >110fL is almost exclusively found in megaloblastic anaemias because of folate and/or B12 deficiency.
  2. Pancytopenia: B12 and folate deficiency impair DNA synthesis impairing erythrpoieis, myelopoiesis and megakaryopoiesis. Nutritional megaloblastic anaemias because of vitamin B12 and/or folate deficiency may show pancytopenia.
  3. Hypersegmented neutrophils (>5% neutrophils with >5lobes) is a feature of megaloblastic anaemia

Other features of megaloblastic anaemia include rise serum transferrin receptor, increased serum iron, serum ferritin and methemalbumin levels. Like haemolytic anaemia the serum haptoglobin is low and the LDH high. LDH levels in megaloblastic anaemia can ve very high.

This patients had a low serum B12 and was treated with parental B12 (1mg alternate day for 5 doses) and was evaluated for cause of vitamin B12 deficiency. As Schilling’s test was not available a diagnosis of pernicious anaemia was made by documenting gastric atrophy and anti-parietal cell antibodies.

Heterozygous β-Thalassaemia 


β-Thalassaemia is an inherited disease characterised by an imbalance between production of α and β globin chains of haemoglobin resulting from impaired production of β chains. The genes responsible for β-thalassaemia carry mutations in areas coding for the β globin gene or regions regulating the expression of this gene. Patients who are homozygous of compound heterozygous for the gene are symptomatic. They manifest as thalassaemia major. Thalassaemia major is a fatal illness where patients suffer the consequences of anaemia, bone marrow hyperplasia and iron overload. Iron overload that results from increased iron absorption and repeated transfusion is the cause of death. The treatment consists of lifelong transfusion with iron chelation or in those who have a matched donor, allogeneic bone marrow transplantation.

Thalassaemia Inheritance

The risk of inheritance of β-thalassaemia in offsprings when both parents are heterozygous is shown on the left. There is a 25% risk of thalassaemia major, 50% risk of heterozygous β-thalassaemia and 25% of the offsprings will be normal. If one of the parents does not carry the thalassaemia gene there is a 50% risk of the offspring carrying heterozygous β-thalassaemia and 50% of the offsprings will be normal.

As opposed to homologous or compound heterozygous β-thalassaemia, heterozygous the β-thalassaemia is asymptomatic. The condition is also known as β-thalassaemia minor (see classification of β-thalassaemia). The terminology reflecting the asymptomatic nature of the disease. Though β-thalassaemia is an asymptomatic disease the diagnosis has clinical implications. These include:

  1. Risk of β-thalassaemia in children: β-Thalassaemia major is inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. If both the parents are heterozygous for β-thalassaemia there is a 25% risk of the child suffering from thalassaemia major (see figure above, left). The most effective way to prevent β-thalassaemia major is to ensure that at least one parents does not carry the β-thalassaemia gene (see figure above, right). Diagnosis of an index case of heterozygous β-thalassaemia should initiate a search for all individuals carrying the β-thalassaemia gene in the family. Patients with heterozygous β-thalassaemia should be discouraged from choosing another heterozygous β-thalassaemia as a life partner. Those who make this choice despite counselling or those who already married should be explained the importance of prenatal diagnosis of β-thalassaemia major on conception and encouraged to undergo the same.
  2. Prevention of unnecessary iron therapy: Iron deficiency anaemia, like thalassaemia, is microcytic and hypochromic. Iron therapy alleviates the anaemia of thalassaemia only if iron deficiency co-exists. Iron therapy is associated with gastrointestinal adverse effects. Some patients with heterozygous β-thalassaemia have increased iron absorption and there have been reports of iron overload in β-thalassaemia trait (Br J Haematol). Diagnosis of heterozygous β-thalassaemia spares the patient unnecessary and sometimes dangerous iron therapy.

Pathophysiology of Heterozygous β-Thalassaemia

Heterozygous β-thalassaemia minor is characterised by an imbalance between the α and β globin chains because of decreased production of β-chains. The clinical manifestations of thalassaemia depend on the degree on imbalance between α chains and non-α (β+γ) chains. Thalassaemia minor, the phenotype of heterozygous β-thalassaemia results when the ratio of α to non-α chains is 2:1 (Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med 2012;2:a011726).

Clinical Features

Patients of heterozygous thalassaemia are asymptomatic. The clinical presentations is that of thalassaemia minor. Diagnosis is usually made incidentally when

  1. A haemogram is performed for another reason or
  2. Screening is performed following detection of a β-thalassaemia patient in the family
  3. Evaluation of anaemia of pregnancy

Though traditionally heterozygous β-thalassaemia are considered to be asymptomatic recent studies have found these patients to have symptoms of mild anaemia. Heterozygous β-thalassaemia may become symptomatic

  1. In pregnancy:The third trimester of pregnancy sees a plasma volume expansion accompanied by an increased production of red cells. In normal women the volume expansion is more than the increase in the number of red cells. Women become anaemic in the third trimester as a result of this discrepancy. Patients with β-thalassaemia trait show a plasma volume expansion but are not able to increase the number of red cells like normal women do. As a consequence women with heterozygous β-thalassaemia become more anaemic than normal women. This anaemia is usually mild and haemoglobin values lower than 8-9g/dL should prompt a search for another cause of anaemia. Iron deficiency anaemia is the commonest anaemia in pregnancy and it mimics thalassaemia. Serum iron and iron binding capacity may not be reliable in pregnancy and a serum ferritin must be performed for diagnosing iron deficiency.
  2. In case of autosomal dominant β-thalassaemia: Some forms of deletion β-thalassaemia result in the formation of an unstable β chain that forms inclusions. These inclusions cause ineffective erythropoietin and a thalassaemia like syndrome. Such patients are said to have a dominant β-thalassaemia and have the clinical picture of thalassaemia intermedia even when heterozygous.
  3. If the co-inherit an overdose of α thalassaemia genes: Manifestations of β-thalassaemia depend on the ratio of α to non-α chains. Thalassaemia minor results when the ration is 1.5-2.5:1 and intermedia when the ratio is about 4:1. Thalassaemia major is seen with higher rations. Some patients have three or even four α globin genes (ααα or αααα). These patients produce more α globin chains. Increase in α chains can push up the ratio of α to non-α chains and result in manifestations of thalassaemia intermedia in heterozygous β-thalassaemia. Similarly co-inheritance of α and β thalassaemias can attenuate the manifestations of thalassaemia.

Laboratory Features

  1. Haemogram: Heterozygous β-thalassaemia is characterised by anaemia, low MCH and low MCV. The MCHC is usually normal. The erythrocytes count is high and there may be a slight increase in the reticulocyte count. The peripheral smear shows microcytosis, hypochromia, poikilocytosis, basophilic strippling and target cells. Co-inheritance of α-thalassaemia attenuates the findings. The red cell indices are normal at birth. Changes associated with heterozygous β-thalassaemia become apparent by 3 months. By 6 months thalassaemic changes are firmly established.
  2. Haemoglobin A2: Haemoglobin A2 (HbA2) is in the range of 3.5-7%. Iron deficiency causes a disproportionate fall in HbA2 in patients with heterozygous β-thalassaemia but does not push the HbA2 levels in the normal range. Heterozygous β-thalassaemia with normal HbA2 is discussed below.
  3. Bone Marrow: The bone marrow shows erythroid hyperplasia with pyknotic normoblasts dominating. There is ineffective erythropoiesis mainly due to destruction of haemoglobinized precursors. Studies have shown approximately 25% decrease in efficiency of erythropoiesis.
  4. Iron Metabolism: Rate of iron absorption is slightly increased. Some cases of iron overload have been reported. Iron deficiency may co-exist the heterozygous β-thalassaemia particularly in pregnancy. Serum ferritin estimations should be performed to diagnose iron deficiency.
  5. Osmotic Fragility: Osmotic fragility is increased particularly after 24 hours of sterile incubation of erhthrocytes. It has been suggested that this be used as a screening test for heterozygous β-thalassaemia but has not gained widespread acceptability.
  6. Globin Chain Synthesis: Heterozygous β-thalassaemia is associated with a α:β ratio of 1.5-2.5:1.

Genotype Phenotype Co-relations

There is a continuous spectrum of changes with mild alleles having less pronounced effect on haematological parameters. Severe alleles have higher HbA2 values. Mild thalassaemia with high HbA2 suggest a promoter mutation.

Interaction between Heterozygous β-thalassaemia and other Haemoglobinopathies

Heterozygous β-thalassaemia is a common disorder and a chance associations may be seen with other haemoglobinopathies or inherited disorders of erythrocytes. Fortunately no deleterious association has been found with most disorders these include glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, hereditary spherocytosis  and pyruvate kinase deficiency.

α-Thalassaemia

α-Thalasaemia tends to reduce the α:β globin ratio. The amount of free α globin chain reduces attenuating the manifestations of heterozygous β-thalassaemia.

Sickle Cell Disease

β-Thalassaemia and sickle-cell diseases are common genetic diseases. Co-inheritance of the two is found in Africa, Mediterranean and sporadically through India. The symptoms depend on the relative amounts of HbS and HbA. HbA polymerises less than HbS. High levels of HbA reduce symptoms of sickling.  HbF is excluded from and protects against sickling. The clinical manifestations of patients co-inhereting sickle-cell and β-thalassaemia depend on the type of thalassaemia allele inherited and the HbF levels.

  1. Sickle β-thalassaemia with β0 or severe β+ alleles: Mediterranean forms of β-thalassaemia trait are either β0 severe β+. Patients from this region have severe sickling symptoms and HbA levels <15%.
  2. Sickle β-thalassaemia with mild β+ alleles: African patients of sickle β-thalassaemia inherit mild β+ alleles.  These patients have haemoglobin levels in the range of 20-30%  and mild symptoms . Many do not have symptoms. Diagnosis in some may be made incidentally.
  3. Sickle β-thalassaemia with high HbF: Patients from Indian and Saudi Arabia have mild symptoms despite inheriting severe β alleles because of high levels of HbF.

Treatment of Heterozygous β-Thalassaemia

Heterozygous β-thalassaemia does not need any treatment. A family screening should be carried out to detect other members carrying the thalassaemic β globin gene. Iron therapy should not be administered to patients empirically. Some patient have an increase iron absorption and iron overload has been reported. Iron studies should guide iron therapy. Anaemia can worsen during pregnancy. Folate and iron supplementation may be needed.