Thalassemic red cells show irregular morphology and maldistribution of glycoproteins and sialic acids. These changes are compatible with damage to the red cell membrane skeleton. To test this possibility, we systematically studied the interconnections of skeletal proteins in patients with a form of alpha thalassemia (HbH disease), in patients with beta thalassemia intermedia, and in normal individuals. Alpha- and beta-thalassemic spectrin functions normally in spectrin self-association, binding to normal inside-out vesicles (IOVs), and binding to actin in the presence and absence of normal protein 4.1. Binding of normal spectrin to beta: thalassemic IOVs is normal but alpha-thalassemic IOVs are defective and bind only half the normal amount of spectrin (66 +/- 5 vs. 120 +/- 16 micrograms spectrin dimer/mg IOV protein, respectively). A different defect is detected in beta thalassemia, in which protein 4.1 shows markedly reduced ability (48 +/- 7% of normal) to enhance the binding of normal spectrin to actin and a decreased ability to bind normal spectrin in a binary interaction, compared with normal protein 4.1 (24 +/- 1 and 43 +/- 1 micrograms protein 4.1/mg spectrin, respectively). As no quantitative deficiency of beta-thalassemic protein 4.1 is detected, we assume an acquired lesion is present, which affects about half of the protein 4.1 molecules. These findings indicate that specific, localized, yet different defects exist in the skeletal proteins of alpha- and beta-thalassemic red cells. The different molecular lesions imply that the mechanism of hemolysis and probably the interaction of unpaired globin chains with the membrane differs in the two diseases.
E Shinar, E A Rachmilewitz, S E Lux