Erythropoietin (EPO)

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.


Iron Deficiency and Microcytic Anemias

Iron is an essential element for oxygen transport within hemoglobin. Oddly enough it is the element that is missed the most in regards to adequate intake and proper nutrition. Over 1.62 billion people in the world are effected by anemia, which is most commonly caused by iron deficiency. Iron deficiency can be caused by chronic blood loss, and is most common in women and teenagers from loss of blood due to menses. Iron loss leads to increased fatigue and depression, pallor, and dry and splitting hair. It can also lead to confusion cognitive effects. Hemoglobin is made of four polypeptide chains, two of which are alpha, and two are beta that come together to form a tetramer heme group with iron located in the middle. Ferrous iron within each heme molecule reversibly binds to one oxygen molecule. With iron deficiency, there becomes a hemoglobin deficiency. A decreased hemoglobin lowers oxygen-carrying capacity leading to anemia. Anemia by definition is a reduced oxygen-carrying ability. Tissue hypoxia can wreak havoc on almost every cell of the body, and can shift the oxygen dissociation curve in an unfavorable direction. The structure of hemoglobin and its function and key elements can be reviewed here.

To understand iron deficiency its important to recognize important aspects of iron metabolism and transportation in cells. Review the Iron Absorption and Metabolism article here for that information. There are also laboratory values that give a good picture of the iron status within the body that one should pay attention to. Transferrin; which is measured as the total iron binding capacity (TIBC) indicates how much or how little iron is being transported throughout the body. Serum iron is an important indicator of the tissue iron supply, and finally serum ferritin gives a picture of iron storage status within the bone marrow and cells.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

There are three stages within iron deficiency. Each comes with their own classic picture of laboratory results and worsen from stage to stage. In the first stage, there is storage iron depletion. This is mild and the patient may not even feel a difference physically. The patients hemoglobin is normal, normal serum iron, and TIBC. There is however decreased ferritin which indicates that there is decreased storage of iron. The second stage of iron deficiency is characterized by transport iron depletion. The hemoglobin may or may not be abnormal, but there is increased TIBC, and decreased serum iron. An increased TIBC, means that there are more substrate (iron) binding spots within the transferrin molecule. This implies that less iron is binding, which when coupled with a decreased serum iron makes sense. The patient may experience mild anemia which comes with increased fatigue and pallor. A peripheral blood smear will most often start to exhibit anisocytosis and poikilocytosis. These reference indicators represent abnormal sized red cells and abnormal shaped red blood cells respectively. A good indicator is an increased RDW, an increased RDW indicates some degree of anisocytosis. This is accurate because the red blood cell is realizing the loss of this oxygen-carrying capacity so its trying to release red blood cells as fast it can from the bone marrow to compensate for the loss, and as a result these red blood cells will appear smaller in diameter and hypochromic. Hypochromasia indicates that there is less hemoglobin within the cell and there is more of a central pallor. The thought is that even though there is less hemoglobin within each cell, if the bone marrow can produce more of these red blood cells than normal then that equals out. This leads to a microcytic anemia, micro meaning small. Stage three of iron deficiency is often referred to as functional iron deficiency. Within this stage there is an unmistakable decrease in hemoglobin, serum iron, and ferritin. There is also a large increase in TIBC.

The overall effect of iron deficiency anemia on the body and on the bone marrow is ineffective erythropoiesis. The red cell production within the bone marrow is compromised. As a result, the bone marrow becomes hypercellular with red cell precursors reducing the M:E (Myeloid:Erythroid) ratio.


This picture depicts how a peripheral blood smear would illustrate iron deficiency anemia. The red cells are smaller and there is more of a central pallor to them, indicating a loss of hemoglobin. This is also called hypochromia.


This picture depicts a normal peripheral blood smear. The red blood cells are larger in size and they have more color to them.

Anemia of Chronic Disease

Anemia of chronic disease is another form of microcytic anemia similar to iron deficiency anemia. It usually arises from a chronic infection or from chronic inflammation, but its also associated with some malignancies. A buildup in inflammatory cytokines alters iron metabolism. IL-6, which is an inflammatory cytokine inhibits erythrocyte production. It also increases hepcidin production. Hepcidin blocks iron release from the macrophages and the hepatocytes by down-regulating ferroportin. Without ferroportin there is no transportation of iron throughout the body and no production of hemoglobin or red blood cells. Laboratory findings will usually demonstrate low serum iron, low TIBC, low transferrin, and an increased to normal ferritin. The reticulocyte count is also normal, and sometimes increased. Reticulocytes are released from the bone marrow in times of red cell shortages to compensate.

This is just a brief overview of iron deficiency anemia and other microcytic anemias. This is just the beginning, follow and look forward to more in-depth reviews of each microcytic anemia. Key differences to look for is the TIBC value. In iron deficiency anemia the TIBC is increased and in anemia of chronic disease the TIBC is decreased. Ferritin is increased in anemia of chronic disease because the stored iron can’t be released from cells and the bone marrow due to the increased hepcidin production. Also the degree of anemia is mild compared to the more severe iron deficiency anemia.