Deconstructing sickle cell disease: reappraisal of the role of hemolysis in the development of clinical subphenotypes

Blood Rev. 2007 Jan;21(1):37-47. doi: 10.1016/j.blre.2006.07.001. Epub 2006 Nov 7.


Hemolysis, long discounted as a critical measure of sickle cell disease severity when compared with sickle vaso-occlusion, may be the proximate cause of some disease complications. New mechanistic information about hemolysis and its effects on nitric oxide (NO) biology and further examination of the subphenotypes of disease requires a reappraisal and deconstruction of the clinical features of sickle cell disease. The biology underlying clinical phenotypes linked to hemolysis may increase our understanding of the pathogenesis of other chronic hemolytic diseases while providing new insights into treating sickle cell disease. The pathophysiological roles of dysregulated NO homeostasis and sickle reticulocyte adherence have linked hemolysis and hemolytic rate to sickle vasculopathy. Nitric oxide binds soluble guanylate cyclase which converts GTP to cGMP, relaxing vascular smooth muscle and causing vasodilatation. When plasma hemoglobin liberated from intravascularly hemolyzed sickle erythrocytes consumes NO, the normal balance of vasoconstriction:vasodilation is skewed toward vasoconstriction. Pulmonary hypertension, priapism, leg ulceration and stroke, all subphenotypes of sickle cell disease, can be linked to the intensity of hemolysis. Hemolysis plays less of a role in the vaso-occlusive-viscosity complications of disease like the acute painful episode, osteonecrosis of bone and the acute chest syndrome. Agents that decrease hemolysis or restore NO bioavailability or responsiveness may have potential to reduce the incidence and severity of the hemolytic subphenotypes of sickle cell disease. Some of these drugs are now being studied in clinical trials.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anemia, Sickle Cell / complications
  • Anemia, Sickle Cell / genetics
  • Anemia, Sickle Cell / physiopathology*
  • Genotype
  • Hemolysis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Hypertension, Pulmonary / etiology
  • Male
  • Nitric Oxide / metabolism*
  • Phenotype
  • Priapism / etiology
  • Skin Ulcer / etiology


  • Nitric Oxide