Membrane lipid alterations in hemoglobinopathies

Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program. 2007;68-73. doi: 10.1182/asheducation-2007.1.68.


The red blood cell (RBC) membrane is a complex mixture of lipids and proteins. Hundreds of phospholipid molecular species spontaneously arrange themselves in a lipid bilayer and move rapidly in the plane as well as across the bilayer in a dynamic but highly organized fashion. Areas enriched in certain lipids determine proper protein function. Phospholipids are asymmetrically distributed across the lipid bilayer with phosphatidylserine (PS) exclusively on the inside. Both the composition and organization of the RBC membrane is well maintained. Alterations lead to apoptosis during erythropoiesis or early demise of the cell in the circulation. The mechanisms that govern the maintenance of the lipid bilayer are only recently being unraveled at the individual protein level. Oxidized lipids are rapidly repaired using fatty acids taken up from plasma to maintain membrane integrity. Several isoforms of a RBC acyl-Coenzyme A (CoA) synthase have been reported, as well as the first member of a family of lysophospholipid acylCoA acyltransferases. Phospholipid asymmetry is maintained by the recently identified RBC amino-phospholipid translocase. These enzymes, essential in maintaining membrane lipid organization, are affected by oxidant stress or an increase in cytosolic calcium. Normal lipid composition and organization is lost in subpopulations of RBC in hemoglobinopathies such as sickle cell disease and thalassemia. Despite elaborate antioxidant systems, lipids and membrane proteins, including those that maintain lipid organization, are damaged in these cells. This in turn leads to improper repair of damaged RBC membranes and altered interactions of RBCs with other blood cells and plasma components that play a role in the pathology that defines these disorders. The altered lipid bilayer in RBCs in hemoglobinopathies leads to premature removal (anemia) and imbalance in hemostasis, and plays a role in vaso-occlusive crisis in sickle cell disease. Lipid breakdown products of PS-exposing cells result in vascular dysfunction, including acute chest syndrome in sickle cell disease. In summary, altered membrane lipids play an important role in the pathology of hemoglobinopathies and characterization of the proteins involved in lipid turnover will elucidate the pathways that maintain plasma membrane organization and cellular viability.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Hemoglobinopathies / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Membrane Lipids / metabolism*


  • Membrane Lipids