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.


Polycythemia Vera

Polycythemia vera is an uncommon neoplasm or blood cancer where the bone marrow produces too many erythrocytes, megakaryocytes, and granulocytes, resulting in panmyelosis. The cancer is caused by a mutation in the JAK2 gene. Janus Kinase 2 (JAK2) is a non-receptor tyrosine kinase that plays a role in signaling in the type II cytokine receptor family. Members of that family include interferon receptors, GM-CSF receptor family, gp130 receptors, and the single chain receptors (EPO-R, etc). The function of those receptors are not important. The most important receptor for this article is the EPO-R receptor. The erythropoietin receptor (EPO-R) is a protein encoded by the EPOR gene that pre-exists in a dimerized state. When the ligand erythropoietin binds to the EPO-R receptor it induces a conformational change that results in the autophosphorylation of the JAK2 kinases. This establishes the function of EPO-R which is to promote proliferation and the rescue of erythroid progenitors from apoptosis. EPO-R induces JAK2-STAT5 signaling and with help from the transcription factor GATA-1 induces the transcription of the protein BCL-XL which is anti-apoptotic and promotes red cell survival.

In polycythemia vera (PV) there is a JAK2V617F mutation that causes independent continuous expression of the JAK2 kinase without erythropoietin (EPO) that acts on signaling pathways involving the EPO-R or hyperexpression in the presence of EPO. This causes increased gene expression for erythroid precursor cell proliferation and differentiation. It up regulates BCL-XL, which as mentioned above is an anti-apoptotic. This causes an abnormal accumulation of red cells in the peripheral blood. Its important to note that the accumulation of the red cells is due to lack of apoptosis, NOT because they are dividing quicker. Also there is a difference between primary PV and secondary PV. In primary PV there is a decreased expression of EPO, this is a compensation method for the body. As there is autophosphorylation of the EPO-Receptor, the body tries to reverse the process by down regulating the expression of erythropoietin (EPO). In secondary PV, there is normal to increased expression of EPO.



Diagnosis of PV according to the World Heath Organization (WHO) has to satisfy both major and minor criteria. The major criteria that has to be observed is a hemoglobin higher than 18.5 g/dL in men, and greater than 16.5 g/dL in women. There also has to be the presence of the JAK2 mutation. Minor criteria include presence of bone marrow hypercellularity demonstrating panmyelosis, serum EPO levels decreased, and a demonstration of endogenous erythroid colony growth in vitro. Meaning that there is presence of red cell growth in the laboratory using EPO from the patient, which assumes there is an issue with the downstream signaling of EPO, not EPO itself.

Laboratory results illustrate an increased hemoglobin, hematocrit, and MCV. There is an increased red cell count, platelet count, and white blood cell count. The leukocyte alkaline phosphatase is also increased. Its important to know that although the platelet count is increased, there is also an altered function of the platelets. The erythrocyte sedimentation rate will be decreased due to the decrease in the zeta potential. The zeta potential is the electrokinetic potential between the red cells that stops them from stacking or from sticking to one another. One classic characteristic of PV is erythromelalgia. This is a burning sensation in the pain and feet, with a reddish or bluish discoloration. This is caused by an increased platelet agglutination, from being dysfunctional that results in microvascular blood clots.


If untreated, PV can be fatal. Although the disease can’t be cured, it can be controlled and the life expectancy has risen with modern advances in medicine. Phlebotomy is recommended to reduce the hemoglobin and hematocrit levels, but can induce iron deficiency anemia if not monitored. Low dose aspirin is prescribed to reduce the risk of thrombotic events. The accumulation of the red cells increases the risk for the patient to develop thrombotic events because the blood is “thick”. Chemotherapy can be used, but is not normally indicated, unless therapeutic phlebotomy is unable to maintain a normal hemoglobin or hematocrit or when there is significant thrombocytosis. It is dangerous because of the risk for transformation to acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

To recap; its important to know the mutation in the JAK2 kinase that induces polycythemia vera. Although this mutation is demonstrated in 90% of cases, its possible that its absent. Panmyelosis and elevation of RBC indices is a diagnostic finding. Its important to know the major and minor criteria for the diagnosis of PV. Treatment is therapeutic phlebotomy and chemotherapy in rare cases, only when prior treatment has failed.