Butyrate analogues have been shown to increase fetal hemoglobin (HbF) production in vitro and in vivo. Sodium phenylbutyrate (SPB), an oral agent used to treat individuals with urea-cycle disorders, has been shown to increase HbF in nonanemic individuals and in individuals with sickle cell disease. We have treated eleven patients with homozygous beta thalassemia (three transfusion dependent) and one sickle-beta-thalassemia patient with 20 g/d (forty 500-mg tablets) of SPB for 41 to 460 days. All patients showed an increase in the percent of F reticulocytes associated with treatment, but only four patients responded by increasing their Hb levels by greater than 1 g/dL (mean increase, 2.1 g/dL; range, 1.2 to 2.8 g/dL). None of the transfusion-dependent thalassemia subjects responded. Increase in Hb was associated with an increase in red blood cell number (mean increase, 0.62 x 10(12)/L), and mean corpuscular volume (mean increase, 6 fL). Changes in percent HbF, absolute HbF levels, or alpha- to non-alpha-globin ratios as measured by levels of mRNA and globin protein in peripheral blood did not correlate with response to treatment. Response to treatment was not associated with the type of beta-globin mutation, but baseline erythropoietin levels of greater than 120 mU/mL was seen in all responders and only two of eight nonresponders to SPB. Compliance with treatment was greater than 90% as measured by pill counts. Side effects of the drug included weight gain and/or edema caused by increase salt load in 2/12, transient epigastric discomfort in 7/12, and abnormal body odor in 3/12 subjects. Two splenectomized patients who were not on prophylactic antibiotics developed sepsis while on treatment. We conclude that SPB increases Hb in some patients with thalassemia, but the precise mechanism of action is unknown.