Alpha Thalassemia


Alpha-thalassemia (α-thalassemia, α-thalassaemia) is a form of thalassemia involving the genes HBA1 and HBA2. Alpha-thalassemia is due to impaired production of alpha chains from 1, 2, 3, or all 4 of the alpha globin genes, leading to a relative excess of beta globin chains. The degree of impairment is based on which clinical phenotype is present (how many genes are affected).

The presentation of individuals with alpha-thalassemia consists of:

Pronounced forehead
Hypertension (during pregnancy)

Alpha-thalassemias are most commonly inherited in a Mendelian recessive manner. They are also associated with deletions of chromosome 16p. Alpha thalassemia can also be acquired under rare circumstances.

The mechanism sees that α thalassemias results in decreased alpha-globin production, therefore fewer alpha-globin chains are produced, resulting in an excess of β chains in adults and excess γ chains in newborns. The excess β chains form unstable tetramers called hemoglobin H or HbH of four beta chains. The excess γ chains form tetramers which are poor carriers of O2 since their affinity for O2 is too high, so it is not dissociated in the periphery. Homozygote α0 thalassaemias, where numerous γ4 but no α-globins occur at all (referred to as Hb Barts), often result in death soon after birth.

Diagnosis of alpha-thalassemia is primarily by laboratory evaluation and haemoglobin electrophoresis. Alpha-thalassemia can be mistaken for iron-deficiency anaemia on a full blood count or blood film, as both conditions have a microcytic anaemia. Serum iron and serum ferritin can be used to exclude iron-deficiency anaemia.

Treatment for alpha-thalassemia may consist of blood transfusions, and possible splenectomy; additionally, gallstones may be a problem that would require surgery. Secondary complications from febrile episode should be monitored, and most individuals live without any need for treatment

Additionally, stem cell transplantation should be considered as a treatment (and cure), which is best done in early age. Other options, such as gene therapy, are still being developed.


In terms of epidemiology, worldwide distribution of inherited alpha-thalassemia corresponds to areas of malaria exposure, suggesting a protective role. Thus, alpha-thalassemia is common in sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, and generally tropical (and subtropical) regions. The epidemiology of alpha-thalassemia in the US reflects this global distribution pattern. More specifically, HbH disease is seen in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, while Hb Bart hydrops fetalis is acknowledged in Southeast Asia only. The data indicate that 15% of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots are carriers of beta-thalassaemia genes, while 10% of the population carry alpha-thalassaemia genes.

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