What shape are your cells? Squishy cylinders? Jagged zig-zags? You probably don’t think much about the bodies of these building blocks, but at the microscopic level, small changes can have huge consequences. And while some adaptations change these shapes for the better, others can spark a cascade of debilitating complications.
This is the story of sickle-cell disease. Sickle-cell disease affects the red blood cells, which transport oxygen from the lungs to all the tissues in the body. To perform this vital task, red blood cells are filled with hemoglobin proteins to carry oxygen molecules.
These proteins float independently inside the red blood cell’s pliable, doughnut-like shape, keeping the cells flexible enough to accommodate even the tiniest of blood vessels. But in sickle cell disease, a single genetic mutation alters the structure of hemoglobin. After releasing oxygen to tissues, these mutated proteins lock together into rigid rows.
Rods of hemoglobin cause the cell to deform into a long, pointed sickle. These red blood cells are harder and stickier, and no longer flow smoothly through blood vessels. Sickled cells snag and pile up– sometimes blocking the vessel completely. This keeps oxygen from reaching a variety of cells, causing the wide range of symptoms experienced by people with sickle-cell disease.
Starting when they’re less than a year old, patients suffer from repeated episodes of stabbing pain in oxygen-starved tissues. The location of the clogged vessel determines the specific symptoms experienced. A blockage in the spleen, part of the immune system, puts patients at risk for dangerous infections.
A pileup in the lungs can produce fevers and difficulty breathing. A clog near the eye can cause vision problems and retinal detachment. And if the obstructed vessels supply the brain the patient could even suffer a stroke. Worse still, sickled red blood cells also don’t survive very long— just 10 or 20 days, versus a healthy cell’s 4 months.
This short lifespan means that patients live with a constantly depleted supply of red blood cells; a condition called sickle-cell anemia. Perhaps what’s most surprising about this malignant mutation is that it originally evolved as a beneficial adaptation.
Researchers have been able to trace the origins of the sickle cell mutation to regions historically ravaged by a tropical disease called malaria. Spread by a parasite found in local mosquitoes, malaria uses red blood cells as incubators to spread quickly and lethally through the bloodstream.
However, the same structural changes that turn red blood cells into roadblocks also make them more resistant to malaria. And if a child inherits a copy of the mutation from only one parent, there will be just enough abnormal hemoglobin to make life difficult for the malaria parasite, while most of their red blood cells retain their normal shape and function.
In regions rife with this parasite, sickle cell mutation offered a serious evolutionary advantage. But as the adaptation flourished, it became clear that inheriting the mutation from both parents resulted in sickle-cell anemia.
Today, most people with sickle-cell disease can trace their ancestry to a country where malaria is endemic. And this mutation still plays a key role in Africa, where more than 90% of malaria infections occur worldwide. Fortunately, as this “adaptation” thrives, our treatment for sickle cell continues to improve.
For years, hydroxyurea was the only medication available to reduce the amount of sickling, blunting symptoms and increasing life expectancy. Bone marrow transplantations offer a curative measure, but these procedures are complicated and often inaccessible.
But promising new medications are intervening in novel ways, like keeping oxygen bonded to hemoglobin to prevent sickling, or reducing the stickiness of sickled cells. And the ability to edit DNA has raised the possibility of enabling stem cells to produce normal hemoglobin. As these tools become available in the areas most affected by malaria and sickle cell disease, we can improve the quality of life for more patients with this adverse adaptation.
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