The heritable haemoglobinopathy α+-thalassaemia is caused by the reduced synthesis of α-globin chains that form part of normal adult haemoglobin (Hb). Individuals homozygous for α+-thalassaemia have microcytosis and an increased erythrocyte count. α+-Thalassaemia homozygosity confers considerable protection against severe malaria, including severe malarial anaemia (SMA) (Hb concentration < 50 g/l), but does not influence parasite count. We tested the hypothesis that the erythrocyte indices associated with α+-thalassaemia homozygosity provide a haematological benefit during acute malaria.
Methods and Findings
Data from children living on the north coast of Papua New Guinea who had participated in a case-control study of the protection afforded by α+-thalassaemia against severe malaria were reanalysed to assess the genotype-specific reduction in erythrocyte count and Hb levels associated with acute malarial disease. We observed a reduction in median erythrocyte count of ∼1.5 × 1012/l in all children with acute falciparum malaria relative to values in community children (p < 0.001). We developed a simple mathematical model of the linear relationship between Hb concentration and erythrocyte count. This model predicted that children homozygous for α+-thalassaemia lose less Hb than children of normal genotype for a reduction in erythrocyte count of >1.1 × 1012/l as a result of the reduced mean cell Hb in homozygous α+-thalassaemia. In addition, children homozygous for α+-thalassaemia require a 10% greater reduction in erythrocyte count than children of normal genotype (p = 0.02) for Hb concentration to fall to 50 g/l, the cutoff for SMA. We estimated that the haematological profile in children homozygous for α+-thalassaemia reduces the risk of SMA during acute malaria compared to children of normal genotype (relative risk 0.52; 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.24–1.12, p = 0.09).
The increased erythrocyte count and microcytosis in children homozygous for α+-thalassaemia may contribute substantially to their protection against SMA. A lower concentration of Hb per erythrocyte and a larger population of erythrocytes may be a biologically advantageous strategy against the significant reduction in erythrocyte count that occurs during acute infection with the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. This haematological profile may reduce the risk of anaemia by other Plasmodium species, as well as other causes of anaemia. Other host polymorphisms that induce an increased erythrocyte count and microcytosis may confer a similar advantage.
Karen Day and colleagues show that increased microcytic erythrocyte count may contribute substantially to the protection of α+-thalassaemia-homozygous children against severe malaria anaemia.
Mutations (changes in the DNA that encodes proteins) continually arise within human populations. Harmful mutations that affect an individual's ability to reproduce usually disappear, but most other mutations persist at a low frequency. Some mutations, however, protect their human carriers against specific disease-causing organisms, and consequently occur at high frequencies in human populations that live in places where these organisms are common. For example, the inherited blood disorder α+-thalassemia, which is common in Africa and Southeast Asia, provides protection against malaria, a parasitic disease that occurs in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. α+-Thalassemia is caused by the loss of one or more of the genes that encode the α chains of hemoglobin, the red blood cell (erythrocyte) protein that carries oxygen around the body. These α chains are normally encoded by four genes, two on each Chromosome 16 (all chromosomes come in pairs). People with heterozygous α+-thalassemia lack one copy of the α chain gene and have a –α/αα genotype (genetic makeup). People with homozygous α+-thalassemia lack one copy of the gene on each chromosome (they have a –α/–α genotype) and have mild “microcytic anemia,” a condition characterized by increased numbers of abnormally small erythrocytes (microcytosis) that contain reduced amounts of hemoglobin.
Why Was This Study Done?
Paradoxically, although homozygous α+-thalassemia causes mild anemia, it provides protection against severe malarial anemia, a potentially fatal complication of malaria. Malaria parasites cause anemia because they multiply inside erythrocytes and rupture them. Scientists originally thought that α+-thalassemia protects against malaria by interfering with the parasite's ability to infect erythrocytes, but the evidence collected so far does not support this hypothesis. In this study, therefore, the researchers have investigated whether the microcytosis and increased erythrocyte count associated with α+-thalassemia might be responsible for the protection that this blood disorder provides against severe malarial anemia. Specifically, they asked whether this hematological (blood) profile protects against severe malarial anemia because people with the –α/–α genotype lose less hemoglobin for a given degree of malaria-induced erythrocyte loss than do those with the normal genotype.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
A study done in the mid 1990s in children living on the north coast of Papua New Guinea (where 68% of the population has α+-thalassemia) showed that homozygous α+-thalassemia protects against severe malaria. To investigate why, the researchers re-analyzed the genotype-specific reduction in erythrocyte counts and hemoglobin levels associated with acute malarial disease in these children and developed a simple mathematical model to predict hemoglobin levels after malaria infection. They found that when malarial infection reduced the number of erythrocytes per liter of blood by more than 1.1 × 1012 (the average measured loss of erythrocytes in this population because of malaria was 1.5 × 1012 per liter), children with homozygous α+-thalassemia lost less hemoglobin than did those with the normal genotype. Furthermore, children with homozygous α+-thalassemia needed a 10% greater reduction in their red blood cell count than children with the normal genotype for their hemoglobin levels to fall below the value that defines severe malarial anemia.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that the increased number of abnormally small erythrocytes associated with homozygous α+-thalassemia might be responsible for the protection against severe malarial anemia that this blood disorder provides, because more erythrocytes have to be destroyed by the parasite to reduce hemoglobin concentrations to a dangerous level than in people with the normal genotype. In other words, a lower concentration of hemoglobin per erythrocyte coupled with a larger population of erythrocytes might be advantageous in the face of the large reduction in erythrocyte numbers caused by infection with malaria parasites. The researchers note that their study population was infected with only one type of malaria parasite (Plasmodium falciparum), but speculate that the hematological profile associated with α+-thalassemia might also prevent other Plasmodium species causing anemia. Futhermore, they suggest, other mutations that increase the erythrocyte count and cause microcytosis might protect against severe malaria anemia in a similar fashion.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050056.
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia contains pages on thalassemia and on malaria (in English and Spanish)
Detailed information is available on thalassemia (including useful links to other resources) from the US National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, from the US National Human Genome Research Institute, from the Cooley's Anemia Foundation, and from MedlinePlus
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide information on malaria (in English and Spanish)
Information is also available from the World Health Organization on malaria (in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese)