What is sickle cell anemia?
Sickle cell anemia (sickle cell disease) is a disorder of the blood caused by an inherited abnormal hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein within the red blood cells). The abnormal hemoglobin causes distorted (sickled) red blood cells. The sickled red blood cells are fragile and prone to rupture. When the number of red blood cells decreases from rupture (hemolysis), anemia is the result. This condition is referred to as sickle cell anemia. The irregular sickled cells can also block blood vessels causing tissue and organ damage and pain.
Sickle cell anemia is one of the most common inherited blood anemias. The disease primarily affects Africans and African Americans. It is estimated that in the United States, some 90,000 to 100,000 Americans are afflicted with sickle cell anemia. Overall, current estimates are that one in 500 U.S. African American births is affected with sickle cell anemia.
How is sickle cell anemia inherited?
Sickle cell anemia is inherited as an autosomal (meaning that the gene is not linked to a sex chromosome) recessive condition. This means that the gene can be passed on from a parent carrying it to male and female children. In order for sickle cell anemia to occur, a sickle cell gene must be inherited from both the mother and the father, so that the child has two sickle cell genes.
The inheritance of just one sickle gene is called sickle cell trait or the "carrier" state. Sickle cell trait does not cause sickle cell anemia. Persons with sickle cell trait usually do not have many symptoms of disease and have hospitalization rates and life expectancies identical to unaffected people. When two carriers of sickle cell trait mate, their offspring have a one in four chance of having sickle cell anemia. (In some parts of Africa, one in five persons is a carrier for sickle cell trait.)
What conditions promote the sickling (distortion) of the red blood cells in sickle cell anemia?
Sickling of the red blood cells in patients with sickle cell anemia results in cells of abnormal shape and diminished flexibility. The sickling is promoted by conditions which are associated with low oxygen levels, increased acidity, or low volume (dehydration) of the blood. These conditions can occur as a result of injury to the body's tissues, dehydration, or anesthesia.
Certain organs are predisposed to lower oxygen levels or acidity, such as when blood moves slowly through the spleen, liver, or kidney. Also, organs with particularly high metabolism rates (such as the brain, muscles, and the placenta in a pregnant woman with sickle cell anemia) promote sickling by extracting more oxygen from the blood. These conditions make these organs susceptible to injury from sickle cell anemia.
How is sickle cell anemia diagnosed?
Sickle cell anemia is suggested when the abnormal sickle-shaped cells in the blood are identified under a microscope. Testing is typically performed on a smear of blood using a special low-oxygen preparation. This is referred to as a sickle prep. Other prep tests can also be used to detect the abnormal hemoglobin S, including solubility tests performed on tubes of blood solutions. The disease can be confirmed by specifically quantifying the types of hemoglobin present using a hemoglobin electrophoresis.
Prenatal diagnosis (before birth) of sickle cell anemia is possible using amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling. The sample obtained is then tested for DNA analysis of the fetal cells.
The hemoglobin electrophoresis test precisely identifies the hemoglobins in the blood by separating them. The separation of the different hemoglobins is possible because of the unique electrical charges they each have on their protein surfaces, causing them each to move characteristically in an electrical field as tested in the laboratory.