Anaemia with Thrombocytosis

A 49 year old woman presented with weakness and fatigability. On examination, other than pallor of the skin and mucosa there was no other finding.  A haemogram was done that showed a haemoglobin: 6.7g/dL, leucocyte count: 9.1 X 109/L and a platelet: 664 X 109/L.

Anaemia and thrombocytopenia is a feature of

  1. Myeloproloferative neoplasm
  2. Chronic inflammation
  3. Underlying malignancy (Paraneoplastic)
  4. Iron deficiency

A haemogram from a automated haematological counter hides a lot of information. Before more investigations are done it is important to assimilate all the information in the haemogram. The haemogram in the above listed conditions shows:

  1. Myeloproliferative Neoplasm: The myeloproliferative neoplasm are diseases characterised by proliferation of bone marrow. They are distinct from acute leukaemia. According to the 2016 WHO classification myeloproliferative neoplasm include chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), chronic neutrophilic leukaemia (CNL), polycythaemia vera (PV), progressive myelofibrosis (PMF), essential thrombocytosis (ET), chronic myeloproliferative neoplasm unclassified (CMPN-U) and chronic eosinophilic leukaemia (CEL).  Myeloproliferative diseases associated with anaemia and thrombocytosis are CML, prefibrotic phase of PMF and CMPN-U. Haemogram of patients with myeloproliferative diseases shows leucocytosis with presence of immature leucocyte forms. This is most pronounced in patients with CML. In fact leucocytosis with the presence of immature leucocyte forms is the dominant feature of the haemogram of patients with CML. Anaemia of myloproliferative is normocytic and normochromic.
  2. Chronic Inflammation and Paraneoplastic Diseases: Anaemia and thrombocytosis can also be seen in patients with chronic inflammation and as a paraneoplastic finding. An occasional immature leucocyte form may also be seen in these conditions. This picture may be indistinguishable from that myeloproliferative diseases other than CML. The anaemia is normocytic and normochromic. When the chronic disease or neoplasm is associated with blood loss as may be the case in cancers of the gastrointestinal tract or inflammatory bowel disease, microcytosis due to a coexisting iron deficiency may be seen.
  3. Iron Deficiency: Iron deficiency is associated with microcytic hypochromic anaemia. The degree of microcytosis co-relates with the degree of iron deficiency. The leucocyte counts depends on the cause of iron deficiency. Commonly the leucocyte is normal or slightly decreased. Patients who have iron deficiency because of blood loss due to an inflammatory condition may have leucocytosis. Iron deficiency from blood loss due to helmethiasis may cause eosinophilia.

The differential leucocyte count showed 67% polymorphs, 27% lymphocytes, 2% monocytes and 4% basophils. The erythrocyte indices were MCV 61fl, MCH 15.3pg and MCHC 24.9g/dL. The red cell distribution width was 28.5%. The peripheral smear showed hypochromia, microcytosis, anisocytosis and poikilocytosis.

Of the causes of anaemia and thrombocytosis listed above only iron deficiency is characterised by hypochromic microcytic anaemia. Iron deficiency is also characterised by anisocytosis and poikilocytosis. This manifests as increased red cell distribution on the haemogram.

The serum iron was 27.9 µg/dl, the total iron binding capacity 488 µg/dl with a transferrin saturation 5.7%. The serum ferritin was 8.53 ng/ml. The haemoglobin electrophoresis showed a haemoglobin A2 of 2.8%, the HbA 96% and haemoglobin F 1.2%.

Iron deficiency is diagnosed by documenting low body iron stores and/or impaired iron delivery of iron to the erythroid precursors. The gold standard for depletion of iron stores is absence of stainable iron in the bone marrow. Serum ferritin accurately reflects body iron stores. It has become the preferred method to demonstrate depletion of body iron stores because of the invasive nature of bone marrow aspiration. Levels less than 15ng/ml strongly suggest iron deficiency. Serum ferritin is specific but not sensitive for iron deficiency. Its has a sensitivity of 59% if the cutoff is 15ng/mL and 75% if the cutoff is less than 16ng/ml. The low sensitivity makes the test of limited value to exclude iron deficiency. Ferritin in an acute phase reactant. It has a limited value in the presence of inflammation.

Unlike low serum ferritin, low serum iron is of limited value in diagnosis of iron deficiency. Iron delivery to the haemoglobinizing erythroid precursors is a function of transferrin saturation rather than the serum iron levels. One can have a low serum iron and a low total iron binding capacity as may be seen in anaemia of chronic disease and yet have a normal transferrin saturation. Such patients do not benefit from iron supplementation. Patients with iron deficiency have a low transferrin saturation indicated impaired iron delivery to the developing erythroid cells. Lower the iron saturation higher the probability of iron deficiency being present. Patients are considered to be iron deficient if the transferrin saturation is less than 16%. This patient had a transferrin saturation of 5.7% and a serum ferritin of 8.63ng/ml along with microcytic hypochromic anaemia. A diagnosis of iron deficiency anaemia was made.

The diagnosis of iron deficiency is incomplete without diagnosing the cause of anaemia. Iron deficiency in a 49 year old woman frequently is a result of blood loss that is often menstrual.  This woman had attained menopause and is being evaluated for a gastrointestinal blood loss.

Iron Studies in Microcytic Anaemia

Diagnosis Serum Iron Total Iron Binding Capacity Transferrin1 Serum Ferritin2
Iron deficiency anaemis Low High or Normal <16% <12ng/mL
Anaemia of Chronic Disease Normal Low or Normal ≥16% High or normal
β-Thalasaemia Trait, HbE, HbC Normal Normal ≥16% Normal
Sideroblastic Anaemia High Normal High High
  1. Two causes of microcytic anaemia may co-exist e.g. thalassaemia trait with iron deficiency anaemia or anaemia of chronic disease with iron deficiency anaemia. When iron deficiency exists with other forms of microcytic anaemia the transferrin saturation is <16%
  2. Patients with low ferritin (<12ng/ml) always have iron deficiency. Higher values of ferritin do not exclude iron deficiency particularly in patients with anaemia of chronic disease. There are no guidelines about the ferritin levels that exclude iron deficiency in patients of anaemia of chronic disease. The reported values vary between 60-100ng/ml.

Laboratory diagnosis of Iron Deficiency

The investigation to diagnose iron deficiency include:

  1. Haemoglobin and red cell parameters
  2. Bone marrow iron staining
  3. Serum Iron, total iron binding capacity and transferrin saturation
  4. Serum ferritin
  5. Zinc Protoporphyrin
  6. Soluble transferrin receptor

Haemoglobin and Red cell Parameters

Patients undergo evaluation for iron deficiency because they are anaemic. Latent iron deficiency is characterized by a progressive decrease in bone marrow iron stores in patients who have yet not developed symptoms. These patients are asymptomatic and latent iron deficiency is not a clinical problem. Iron deficiency causes microcytic hypochromic anaemia. There are no reliable test to differentiate iron deficiency from other causes of microcytic hypochromic anaermia.  The red cell indices that have been proposed to be useful include

  1. Red cell distribution width (RDW): RDW is a measure of anisocytosis. Iron deficiency anaemia shows more anisocytosis than β-thalassaemia and is associated with a higher RDW. The promise held out by RDW to differentiate iron deficiency and thalassaemia has not fulfilled.
  2. Reticulocyte haemoglobn content: Changes in erythropoiesis are reflected earliest in the reticulocyte. Reticulocytes form a small fraction of erythrocytes. Change in reticulocyte indices do not change erythrocyte indices. Some automated counters are able to measure reticulocyte indices. Reticulocyte haemoglobin content falls with iron deficiency anaemia but the finding is not specific. It has been found to asses iron deficiency in patient of chronic renal failure being treated with erythropoietin accurately. It has not been found to be useful in diagnosing iron deficiency in patients with thalassaemia.

Bone Marrow Iron Staining

Bone marrow is stained for iron content by the Prussian blue reaction and graded in a semiquantative method. Bone marrow iron is the gold standard for diagnosis of iron deficiency. The test is invasive and suffers from an inter-observer variation. Bone marrow iron staining is resorted to only when diagnosis can not be reached by other methods.

Serum iron, total iron binding capacity and transferrin saturation

Iron deficiency is diagnosed by a transferrin saturation of less than 16%. The serum iron is low and the total iron binding capacity is usually increased. Patients with low total iron binding capacity have anaemia of chronic disease if the transferrin saturation is ≥16%  or iron deficiency along with anaemia of chronic disease if the transferrin saturation is <16%.

Serum ferritin

Ferritin is one of the iron storage proteins. Serum ferritin levels co-relates with body iron content. A ferritin level less than 12ng/mL is diagnostic of iron deficiency. Inflammation increases ferritin. Chronic inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis have anaemia of chronic disease and may also have iron deficiency. A patient with iron deficiency in the setting of an inflammatory disease may not have a low ferritin. There is no consensus for diagnosing iron deficiency in patients with anaemia of chronic disease. Inflammation rarely increases the serum ferritin values more than 60-100ng/mL. Iron deficiency can be excluded in patients with ferritin above this cutoff.

Zinc Portoporphyrin

Iron is added to propoporphyrin in the final step of heme synthesis. Zinc takes the place of iron in patients with iron deficiency. A rise in the concentration of zinc protoporphyrin is the earliest manifestations of iron deficiency. Zinc protoporphyrin levels rise in about 2 weeks from the onset of iron deficiency and need more than a month to normalize after restoration of normal iron levels.

Soluble transferrin Receptor

Iron deficiency results in an increase in soluble transferrin receptor (sTfR). Inflammation impacts serum ferritin but not sTfR making it a potentially useful investigation for differentiating anaemia of chronic disease and iron deficiency. The assay has been difficult to standardize. A ratio of sTfR/log ferritin is more useful.

The sTfR levels reflect the density of transferrin receptors cells and number of cells. sTfR increases when there is erythroid hyperplasia due to any cause like haemolytic anaemia and may not reflect iron deficiency in these disorders.