Cohen AR, Galanello R, Pennell DJ, Cunningham MJ, Vichinsky E

New developments in the epidemiology, treatment and prognosis of thalassemia have dramatically altered the approach to the care of affected patients, and these developments are likely to have an even greater impact in the next few years. Demographic changes have required an awareness and understanding of the unique features of thalassemia disorders that were previously uncommon in North America but are now seen more frequently in children and recognized more consistently in adults. New methods for measuring tissue iron accumulation and new drugs to remove excessive iron are advancing two of the most challenging areas in the management of thalassemia as well as other transfusion-dependent disorders. Improved survival of patients with thalassemia has given new importance to adult complications such as endocrinopathies and hepatitis that have a major impact on the quality of life. This chapter describes how these changes are redefining the clinical management of thalassemia. In Section I, Dr. Renzo Galanello describes recent advances in iron chelation therapy. Several new chelators are either licensed in some countries, are in clinical trials or are in the late stages of preclinical development. Some of these iron chelators, such as deferiprone (DFP) and ICL670, are orally active. Others, such as hydroxybenzyl-ethylenediamine-diacetic acid (HBED) and starch deferoxamine, require parenteral administration but may be effective with less frequent administration than is currently required for deferoxamine. Chelation therapy employing two chelators offers the possibility of more effective removal of iron without compromising safety or compliance. Other strategies for chelation therapy may take advantage of the ability of particular chelators to remove iron from specific target organs such as the heart and the liver. In Section II, Dr. Dudley Pennell addresses cardiac iron overload, the most frequent cause of death from chronic transfusion therapy. The cardiac complications related to excessive iron may result from long-term iron deposition in vulnerable areas or may be due to the more immediate effects of nontransferrin-bound iron. Cardiac disease is reversible in some patients with intensive iron chelation therapy, but identification of cardiac problems prior to the onset of serious arrhythmias or congestive heart failure has proven difficult. New methods using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have recently been developed to assess cardiac iron loading, and studies suggest a clinically useful relationship between the results using these techniques and critical measures of cardiac function. Measurements such as T2* may help guide chelation therapy in individual patients and may also enhance the assessment of new chelators in clinical trials. The use of MRI-based technology also holds promise for wider application of non-invasive assessment of cardiac iron in the management of patients with thalassemia. In Section III, Dr. Melody Cunningham describes some of the important complications of thalassemia that are emerging as patients survive into adulthood. Hepatitis C infection is present in the majority of patients older than 25 years. However, antiviral therapy in patients with thalassemia has been held back by the absence of large clinical trials and concern about ribavirin-induced hemolysis. More aggressive approaches to the treatment of hepatitis C may be particularly valuable because of the additive risks for cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma that are posed by infection and iron overload. Thrombosis is recognized with increasing frequency as a significant complication of thalassemia major and thalassemia intermedia, and pulmonary hypertension is now the focus of intense study. Risk factors for thrombosis such as splenectomy are being identified and new approaches to anticoagulation are being initiated. Pregnancies in women with thalassemia are increasingly common with and without hormonal therapy, and require a better understanding of the risks of iron overload and cardiac disease in the mother and exposure of the fetus to iron chelators. In Section IV, Dr. Elliott Vichinsky describes the dramatic changes in the epidemiology of thalassemia in North America. Hemoglobin E-beta thalassemia is seen with increasing frequency and poses a particular challenge because of the wide variability in clinical severity. Some affected patients may require little or no intervention, while others need chronic transfusion therapy and may be appropriate candidates for hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Enhancers of fetal hemoglobin production may have a unique role in Hb E-beta thalassemia since a modest increase in hemoglobin level may confer substantial clinical benefits. Alpha thalassemia is also being recognized with increasing frequency in North America, and newborn screening for Hemoglobin Barts in some states is leading to early detection of Hb H disease and Hb H Constant Spring. New data clarify the importance of distinguishing these two disorders because of the increased severity associated with Hb H Constant Spring. The use of intrauterine transfusions to sustain the viability of fetuses with homozygous alpha thalassemia has created a new population of patients with severe thalassemia and has raised new and complex issues in genetic counseling for parents with alpha thalassemia trait.