Background: Fetal-globin (gamma-globin) chains inhibit the polymerization of hemoglobin S (sickle hemoglobin) and can functionally substitute for the beta-globin chains that are defective or absent in patients with the beta-thalassemias. Identifying safe mechanisms to stimulate fetal-hemoglobin production is therefore of great interest. Previous studies have shown that administering butyrate selectively stimulates the promoter of the human fetal-globin gene and leads to increases in gamma-globin--gene expression in the developing fetus, cultured cells, and animal models.
Methods: To determine whether butyrate can stimulate fetal-globin production in humans, we treated three patients (3 to 13 years old) with sickle cell anemia and three patients (7 to 27 years old) with beta-thalassemia syndromes with a short course of intravenous infusions of arginine butyrate. The drug was infused continuously for either two or three weeks; the initial dose was 500 mg per kilogram of body weight per day. Globin-chain ratios, proportions of reticulocytes producing hemoglobin F (F reticulocytes), and levels of gamma-globin messenger RNA (mRNA) were determined before and during treatment.
Results: In all six patients, fetal-globin synthesis increased by 6 to 45 percent above pretreatment levels (P < 0.01). The proportion of F reticulocytes increased about twofold, and the level of gamma-globin mRNA increased twofold to sixfold. The increase in gamma-globin synthesis led to improvement in the globin-chain ratios in the patients with thalassemia. The treatment of one patient was extended for seven weeks, and her hemoglobin level increased from 4.7 to 10.2 g per deciliter (2.9 to 6.3 mmol per liter). Side effects were minimal; one patient had a transient increase in serum aminotransferase concentrations.
Conclusions: In patients with beta-hemoglobinopathies butyrate, a natural fatty acid, can significantly and rapidly increase fetal-globin production to levels that can ameliorate beta-globin disorders. Further trials of this class of compounds are warranted to determine long-term tolerance and efficacy in patients with sickle cell anemia or beta-thalassemia.