The role of red blood cells is to carry oxygen. Just like anything in the body, this is tightly regulated by a mechanism that monitors whether or not there is adequate oxygen getting to tissues and other cells. Hypoxia is detected by the peritubular fibroblasts of the kidneys which causes erythropoietin (EPO) to be released. The EPO gene has a hypoxia-sensing region in its 3’ regulatory component which causes hypoxia inducible factor-1 (HIF-1) transcription factor to be assembled and it interacts with the 3’ enhancer of the gene causing increased EPO mRNA and production of more EPO. EPO is a true hormone, being produced in the kidneys, and acting upon another distant location being the bone marrow. When EPO binds to its ligand (receptor) on red blood cell progenitors it initiates a cascade which is mediated through the JAK2 signal transducers which ultimately effects the gene expression. EPO has three main physiological effects on the body; it allows early release of reticulocytes from the bone marrow, prevents apoptosis, and reduces the time needed for cells to mature in the bone marrow before release into the periphery.
There are two mechanism for which EPO stimulates early release of red cell precurors into the bone marrow. It induces changes in the adventitial cell layer of the marrow sinuses that increases the width of the spaces that the red cells squeeze out of. It also down regulates red blood cell surface receptors for adhesive molecules that are located on the bone marrow stroma. As a result the red cells are able to pass through without the receptor so that they won’t bind to the stroma and delay release.
Apoptosis is programmed cell death. EPO inhibits apoptosis by removing the induction signal. Under normal physiology the bone marrow produces more CFU-Es than needed that are stored in the bone marrow which have a “head start” in the maturation process. About a 10 day head start in maturation. The CFU-Es (Colony-forming unit-erythroid) are red blood cell progenitor cells that develop from BFU-Es (Burst-forming unit-erythroid). Both BFU-E and CFU-E are red blood cell progenitor cells that develop into the pronormoblast, which is the first morphologically identifiable red blood cell precursor. If healthy, those cells live out there life span and undergo apoptosis. If there is a deficiency of red blood cell mass, those cells undergo maturation to be released, while simultaneously the apoptosis induction signal is inhibited. The normal death signal consists of a death receptor being FAS, on the membrane of the earliest red blood cell precursors (CFU-Es/BFU-Es), and FASL ligand on the maturing red blood cells precursors. When EPO levels are low, because there is adequate oxygen delivery the older FASL bearing cells cross-link with earlier FAS precursors which stimulates apoptosis. EPO is able to subdue apoptosis by stimulating the more mature precursors to be released from the marrow, especially in times of hypoxia. At which point there will no FASL bearing cells to cross-link the early FAS bearing precursors. Its a two fold effect, the more mature cells are released to help increase red cell mass in times of need, and the early precursor are allowed to mature and be released without undergoing apoptosis. When EPO binds to its ligand on the red blood cell activates the JAK2-STAT pathway, which ends in and up-regulation of transcription for BCL-2, which is an anti-apoptotic protein. This anti-apoptotic protein rests on the cell membrane and prevents the release of cytochrome c, which initiates apoptosis.
EPO has an effect on the bone marrow transit time of a red blood cell precursor in two different ways; increased rate of cellular processes, and decreased cell cycle times. What this means is that EPO stimulates synthesis of red cell RNA, such as the production of hemoglobin. It also stimulates the production of egress-promoting surface molecules within the bone marrow which allow the red blood cells to flow through the marrow easier. EPO stimulates cells to enter cell cycle arrest earlier than normal, and as a result, spend less time maturing and are able to be released. These cells may appear larger in size and have a bluish tinge to their cytoplasm because of this.