Background: We assessed the in vitro culture growth of erythroid progenitors [burst forming unit-erythroid (BFU-E)] and serum erythropoietin (EPO) levels in different groups of polycythaemia to determine the discriminative power in differential diagnosis of polycythaemia.
Methods: We used the methylcellulose culture technique to study the growth of endogenous erythroid colonies (EECs) and EPO-dependent BFU-E from bone marrow (BM) and/or peripheral blood (PB) cells from 40 patients with polycythaemia vera (PV), 13 with secondary polycythaemia (SP), 19 with pure erythrocytosis (PE), five with PE and PV evolution later (PE-PV), and 12 with relative polycythaemia (RP). The serum EPO levels were measured by radioimmunoassay before treatment in 47 patients, 23 SP patients, 19 PE patients, five PE-PV patients and 16 RP patients, as well as after treatment in 38 PV patients, five PE-PV patients and 12 PE patients.
Results: The results of the erythroid progenitor culture assay showed that the numbers of EPO-dependent BFU-E in BM did not differ significantly among groups. The PB BFU-E were significantly higher in PV than in SP or PE, and no statistical difference were found among patients with SP, PE and RP. There was a correlation between BM BFU-E and PB BFU-E in the individual PV and PE patients. EECs were present in all BM and PB cultures of untreated and phlebotomy-treated PV and PE-PV patients, but were absent in 6 of 17 PV patients who had received cytotoxic therapy. EECs were not found in SP, PE and RP. PB could substitute for BM in the EEC or the BFU-E assay. Both pretreatment and post-treatment serum EPO levels of PV and PE-PV were similar, which were significantly lower than SP, PE or RP. The serum EPO levels in treated PV or PE-PV patients who had normal haematocrit values were not significantly different from those in untreated patients. In contrast, the phlebotomy-treated PE patients had significantly higher serum EPO values than untreated PE patients. In the differentiation between PV and PE, the sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value and negative predictive value of post-treatment serum EPO levels at a cut-off level of < or = 9 UL-1 were 74%, 92% and 52% respectively. The discriminative power of post-phlebotomy serum EPO levels was even higher with a positive predictive value of 80% and negative predictive value of 92% for the prediction of PV evolution in patients with pure erythrocytosis of unknown origin.
Conclusion: The present study showed that apart from EEC assay, the post-phlebotomy serum EPO level was a sensitive and specific parameter in the differential diagnosis of polycythaemia, in particular for the identification of PV among patients with unclassifiable polycythaemia.