Sickle cell anemia leads to sickling of red cells during hypoxia. This can cause blockage in blood vessels with a range of clinical problems. Treatment is with red cell transfusions and hydroxycarbamide. 
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Image: “Sickle-cells in human blood: both normal red blood cells and sickle-shaped cells are present.” by Dr Graham Beards. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Definition of Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is a hereditary hemolytic anemia based on a point mutation. In the erythrocytes, sickle cell hemoglobin (Hb-S) can be found instead of the normal hemoglobin.

Epidemiology of Sickle Cell Anemia



Image: “Distribution of the sickle-cell trait shown in pink and purple,” by Muntuwandi. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Sickle cell anemia is almost exclusively present in black-skinned people.

Etiology and Pathogenesis of Sickle Cell Anemia


Image: “Sickle cell disease is inherited in the autosomal recessive pattern,” by Cburnett. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

As a result of a base replacement in the DNA-code (thymine instead of adenine), an exchange of an amino acid at position 6 of the ß-chain of the hemoglobin occurs. Genetically, this is a point mutation. This results in crystallization of the altered hemoglobin in the erythrocytes. If the partial pressure of oxygen decreases, the erythrocytes assume a characteristic, sickle shaped form. This leads to micro-embolisms and infarctions.

The severity of the disease depends on the rate of sickle cell hemoglobin in the erythrocytes. This rate is determined by the hereditary disposition and the inheritance mode. While heterozygosity leads to Hb-S-values of less than 50 %, the rate of Hb-S at homozygosity is ca. 70-99 %.

Since crystallization of sickle cell hemoglobin depends on the partial pressure of oxygen, the symptoms mainly manifest in situations leading to hypoxia, or such that are accompanied by it. Greater physical exertion, as well as infections, stay in greater heights, increased cold exposition, surgeries and the like, can lead to hemolytic crises.

  • Point mutation in the b-globin gene causing glutamate-valine substitution at amino acid 6 (HbS).
  • Autosomal recessive inheritance.


Clinic of Sickle Cell Anemia


Figure A shows normal red blood cells flowing freely in a blood vessel. The inset image shows a cross-section of a normal red blood cell with normal hemoglobin. Figure B shows abnormal, sickled red blood cells blocking blood flow in a blood vessel. The inset image shows a cross-section of a sickle cell with abnormal (sickle) hemoglobin forming abnormal strands.

Patients with sickle cell anemia show the typical symptoms of a chronic hemolytic anemia. Besides this, the patients suffer from abdominal, colicky complaints; bone and joint pain is also possible. Due to the pathogenesis, infarctions, especially in the kidneys and in the spleen, are frequently observed. Also, infarctions in the lung, the liver and in bone tissue often occur. First clinical hints are conspicuous shortenings of individual extremities in child age (hand-foot syndrome).

Deoxyhemoglobin S has a tendency to polymerize. This polymerization causes sickling of RBCs under conditions of low oxygen tension:

  • Infection
  • Dehydration
  • Hypoxia

Sickled cells are cleared in the spleen, causing hemolytic anemia. They occlude the microvasculature, causing vaso-occlusive crises.

Vaso-occlusion can lead to:

  • Pain crises: microvascular ischemia causing severe pain (100 % of SS patients are eventually addicted to opiates);
  • Acute chest syndrome: hypoxemia caused by microvascular disease of the lung;
  • Stroke;
  • Autosplenectomy: involution of the spleen causing susceptibility to infection by encapsulated bacteria (100 % of SS patients autosplenectomized by adulthood);
  • Painful priapism.

Also susceptible to:

  • Aplastic crisis with parvovirus B19 infection;
  • Salmonella osteomyelitis;
  • Other sequelae of chronic hemolytic anemia.

Diagnosis of Sickle Cell Anemia

  • Newborn screening: genetic test for E6V mutation;
  • Sickle prep: peripheral blood sickles when exposed to sodium metabisulfite (reduces oxygen tension);
  • Hemoglobin electrophoresis.

Hemoglobin Electrophoresis

sickle-cell-trait No anemia Sickle cell trait

Note that there is not enough HbS to cause spontaneous sickling in the peripheral blood.

sickle-cell-disease Normocytic Sickle cell disease

Note that there is no HbA. There is enough HbS to cause spontaneous sickling.

Therapy of Sickle Cell Anemia

The minor form usually does not need treatment. However, the major form often leads to death in childhood, if not treated. Thus, allogeneic HLA-identical bone marrow transplantation should be attempted if there are siblings. Otherwise, therapy of the major form is symptomatic and is limited to avoiding situations of oxygen deficiency, the application of folate and the transfusion of erythrocyte concentrate.

  • Hydroxyurea (increases production of fetal hemoglobin over HbS)
  • Bone marrow transplantation
  • Fluids
  • Analgesics.

Course and Prognosis of Sickle Cell Anemia

Due to Hb-S-values between 25 and 50 %, the heterozygous form barely develops symptoms and, thus, practically is not considered a disease. However, states of hypoxia, e.g., after severe exertion, or prior infectious diseases, can trigger hemolytic crises. Still, life expectancy is not decreased by the disease in any measurable way. Also, the patients exhibit a relative resistance against malaria tropica due to the point mutation and the resulting morphological changes of the erythrocytes.

Homozygous sickle cell anemia patients are severely ill since their Hb-S value lies between 70 and 99 %. Untreated, homozygous and double heterozygous patients die in childhood.

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