Congenital erythrocytosis

Eur J Haematol. 2021 Jul;107(1):29-37. doi: 10.1111/ejh.13632. Epub 2021 Apr 23.


Erythrocytosis, or increased red cell mass, may be labeled as primary or secondary, depending on whether the molecular defect is intrinsic to the red blood cells/their precursors or extrinsic to them, the latter being typically associated with elevated erythropoietin (EPO) levels. Inherited/congenital erythrocytosis (CE) of both primary and secondary types is increasingly recognized as the cause in many patients in whom acquired, especially neoplastic causes have been excluded. During the past two decades, the underlying molecular mechanisms of CE are increasingly getting unraveled. Gain-in-function mutations in the erythropoietin receptor gene were among the first to be characterized in a disorder termed primary familial and congenital polycythemia. Another set of mutations affect the components of the oxygen-sensing pathway. Under normoxic conditions, the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF), upon hydroxylation by the prolyl-4-hydroxylase domain protein 2 (PHD2) enzyme, is degraded by the von Hippel-Lindau protein. In hypoxic conditions, failure of prolyl hydroxylation leads to stabilization of HIF and activation of the EPO gene. CE has been found to be caused by loss-of-function mutations in VHL and PHD2/EGLN1 as well as gain-of-function mutations in HIF-2α (EPAS1), all resulting in constitutive activation of EPO signaling. Apart from these, globin gene mutations leading to formation of high oxygen affinity hemoglobins also cause CE. Rarely, bisphosphoglycerate mutate mutations, affecting the 2,3-bisphosphoglycerate levels, can increase the oxygen affinity of hemoglobin and cause CE. This narrative review examines the current mutational spectrum of CE and the distinctive pathogenetic mechanisms that give rise to this increasingly recognized condition in various parts of the world.

Keywords: erythrocytosis; erythropoietin; molecular diagnosis; polycythemia; sequences.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Bisphosphoglycerate Mutase / genetics
  • Erythrocytes / metabolism
  • Erythropoietin / metabolism
  • Hemoglobins / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor-Proline Dioxygenases / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Mutation*
  • Oxygen / chemistry
  • Oxygen / metabolism
  • Polycythemia / congenital*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Basic Helix-Loop-Helix Transcription Factors
  • Hemoglobins
  • Erythropoietin
  • endothelial PAS domain-containing protein 1
  • EGLN1 protein, human
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor-Proline Dioxygenases
  • Bisphosphoglycerate Mutase
  • Oxygen

Supplementary concepts

  • Polycythemia, primary familial and congenital