Pharmacologic Therapies in Beta Hemoglobinopathies: Fetal Globin Gene Induction in the First Molecular Diseases

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Kevin H.M. Kuo, MD, MSc, FRCPC Aidan D. Faller, BS Donald Lavelle, PhD Yogen Saunthararajah, MD Susan P. Perrine, MD, SM, MMS


Beta hemoglobinopathies and thalassemias are caused by diverse molecular mutations of the βA globin chains and modulated by polymorphisms. These are important disorders in medical history, as they became prevalent globally in regions where P. falciparum malaria was endemic. Heterozygous or carrier states conferred a survival advantage; however, doubly heterozygous or homozygous states cause severe hemolytic anemia and multi-organ complications.

These disorders are somewhat unique in that all humans have alternate genes for fetal globin chains, which are expressed in fetal life but are silenced on a developmental clock in infancy. An established approach to ameliorating conditions of abnormal adult globin genes is to reactivate, or increase expression, of the endogenous fetal globin genes to replace the missing protein chains in beta thalassemias or inhibit polymerization of hemoglobin S and reduce the red cell abnormalities.

This review provides a high-level overview of cell and molecular mechanisms that mediate fetal to adult globin gene switching and pharmacologic therapies that can reactivate fetal globin through different actions. Intermittent or metronomic dosing regimens have overcome challenges of undesirable off-target effects by agents that cause erythroid cell growth arrest.

Multiple pharmacologic candidates reactivate or increase the expression of fetal globin protein and proportions of red blood cells containing HbF (F-cells). Hydroxyurea maintains high levels of HbF if begun in infancy, with some decline in mid-childhood. It elicits lower responses in HbF in adult patients, but still has broad clinical benefit in reducing many complications. However, many adult patients do not tolerate optimal hydroxyurea dosing due to cytopenias. Parenterally administered therapies with differing molecular actions, such as demethylating agents and histone deacetylase inhibitors, have shown proof-of-principle in reactivating HbF. Orally bioavailable candidates with complementary molecular mechanisms are in trials.

Combining fetal globin-inducing agents with other therapies with complementary mechanisms, such as recombinant erythropoietin that promotes the survival of red blood cells and therapeutics that promote erythroid cell metabolism, should have additive effects. These pharmaceutical candidates offer great clinical potential and global feasibility for ameliorating these serious diseases.

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KUO, Kevin H.M. et al. Pharmacologic Therapies in Beta Hemoglobinopathies: Fetal Globin Gene Induction in the First Molecular Diseases. Medical Research Archives, [S.l.], v. 12, n. 3, mar. 2024. ISSN 2375-1924. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 16 apr. 2024. doi:
Research Articles


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