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|Classification and external resources|
Thalassemia (British English: thalassaemia) are forms of inherited autosomal recessive blood disorders that originated in the Mediterranean region. In thalassemia, the disease is caused by the weakening and destruction of red blood cells. Thalassemia is caused by variant or missing genes that affect how the body makes hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. People with thalassemia make less hemoglobin and fewer circulating red blood cells than normal, which results in mild or severe anemia.
Thalassemia can cause significant complications, including pneumonia, iron overload, bone deformities and cardiovascular illness. However this same inherited disease of red blood cells may confer a degree of protection against malaria, which is or was prevalent in the regions where the trait is common. This selective survival advantage on carriers (known as heterozygous advantage) may be responsible for perpetuating the mutation in populations. In that respect, the various thalassemias resemble another genetic disorder affecting hemoglobin, sickle-cell disease. 
From the Greek thalassa ("sea") and -emia ("blood"). The etymology indicates the epidemiology of the disorder in that it commonly occurs in patients of Mediterranean descent. The term was first used in 1932.
The beta form of thalassemia is particularly prevalent among Mediterranean peoples and this geographical association is responsible for its naming: Thalassa (θάλασσα) is the Greek word for sea and Haema (αἷμα) is the Greek word for blood. In Europe, the highest concentrations of the disease are found in Greece, coastal regions in Turkey (particularly the Aegean Region such as Izmir, Balikesir, Aydin, Mugla, and Mediterranean Region such as Antalya, Adana, Mersin), in parts of Italy, particularly Southern Italy and the lower Po valley. The major Mediterranean islands (except the Balearics) such as Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, Corsica, Cyprus, and Crete are heavily affected in particular. Other Mediterranean people, as well as those in the vicinity of the Mediterranean, also have high rates of thalassemia, including people from West Asia and North Africa. Far from the Mediterranean, South Asians are also affected, with the world's highest concentration of carriers (16% of the population) being in the Maldives.
Nowadays, it is found in populations living in Africa, the Americas and also, in Tharu in the Terai region of Nepal and India. It is believed to account for much lower malaria sicknesses and deaths, accounting for the historic ability of Tharus to survive in areas with heavy malaria infestation, where others could not. Thalassemias are particularly associated with people of Mediterranean origin, Arabs (especially Palestinians and people of Palestinian descent), and Asians. The Maldives has the highest incidence of Thalassemia in the world with a carrier rate of 18% of the population. The estimated prevalence is 16% in people from Cyprus, 1% in Thailand, and 3-8% in populations from Bangladesh, China, India, Malaysia and Pakistan. Thalassemias also occur in descendants of people from Latin America and Mediterranean countries (e.g. Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and others).
Normally, hemoglobin is composed of four protein chains, two α and two β globin chains arranged into a heterotetramer. In thalassemia, patients have defects in either the α or β globin chain (unlike sickle-cell disease, which produces a specific mutant form of β globin), causing production of abnormal red blood cells.
The thalassemias are classified according to which chain of the hemoglobin molecule is affected. In α thalassemias, production of the α globin chain is affected, while in β thalassemia production of the β globin chain is affected.
The β globin chains are encoded by a single gene on chromosome 11; α globin chains are encoded by two closely linked genes on chromosome 16. Thus, in a normal person with two copies of each chromosome, there are two loci encoding the β chain, and four loci encoding the α chain. Deletion of one of the α loci has a high prevalence in people of African or Asian descent, making them more likely to develop α thalassemias. β Thalassemias are not only common in Africans, but also in Greeks and Italians.
The α thalassemias involve the genes HBA1 and HBA2, inherited in a Mendelian recessive fashion. There are two gene locii and so four alleles. It is also connected to the deletion of the 16p chromosome. α Thalassemias result 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 4 beta chains), which have abnormal oxygen dissociation curves.
Beta thalassemias are due to mutations in the HBB gene on chromosome 11, also inherited in an autosomal-recessive fashion. The severity of the disease depends on the nature of the mutation. Mutations are characterized as either βo or β thalassemia major if they prevent any formation of β chains, the most severe form of β thalassemia. Also, they are characterized as β+ or β thalassemia intermedia if they allow some β chain formation to occur. In either case, there is a relative excess of α chains, but these do not form tetramers: Rather, they bind to the red blood cell membranes, producing membrane damage, and at high concentrations they form toxic aggregates.
As well as alpha and beta chains present in hemoglobin, about 3% of adult hemoglobin is made of alpha and delta chains. Just as with beta thalassemia, mutations that affect the ability of this gene to produce delta chains can occur.
Thalassemia can co-exist with other hemoglobinopathies. The most common of these are:
Both α and β thalassemias are often inherited in an autosomal recessive fashion, although this is not always the case. Cases of dominantly inherited α and β thalassemias have been reported, the first of which was in an Irish family with two deletions of 4 and 11 bp in exon 3 interrupted by an insertion of 5 bp in the β-globin gene. For the autosomal recessive forms of the disease, both parents must be carriers in order for a child to be affected. If both parents carry a hemoglobinopathy trait, there is a 25% risk with each pregnancy for an affected child. Genetic counseling and genetic testing is recommended for families that carry a thalassemia trait.
There are an estimated 60-80 million people in the world carrying the beta thalassemia trait alone. This is a very rough estimate; the actual number of thalassemia major patients is unknown due to the prevalence of thalassemia in less developed countries. Countries such as India and Pakistan are seeing a large increase of thalassemia patients due to lack of genetic counseling and screening. There is growing concern that thalassemia may become a very serious problem in the next 50 years, one that will burden the world's blood bank supplies and the health system in general. There are an estimated 1,000 people living with thalassemia major in the United States and an unknown number of carriers. Because of the prevalence of the disease in countries with little knowledge of thalassemia, access to proper treatment and diagnosis can be difficult.
Therapy for beta thalassemia primarily involves chelation or removal of excessive iron deposits in the blood. Deferoxamine is the intravenously or subcutaneously administered chelation agent currently approved for use in the United States. Deferasirox (Exjade) is an oral iron chelation drug also approved in the US in 2005. Deferiprone is an oral iron chelator that has been approved in Europe since 1999 and many other countries. It is available under compassionate use guidelines in the United States.
The antioxidant indicaxanthin, found in beets, in a spectrophotometric study showed that indicaxanthin can be reduce perferryl-Hb generated in solution from met-Hb and hydrogen peroxide, more effectively than either Trolox or Vitamin C. Collectively, results demonstrate that indicaxanthin can be incorporated into the redox machinery of β-thalassemic RBC and defend the cell from oxidation, possibly interfering with perferryl-Hb, a reactive intermediate in the hydroperoxide-dependent Hb degradation.
In 2008, in Spain, a baby was selectively implanted in order to be a cure for his brother's thalassemia. The child was born from an embryo screened to be free of the disease before implantation with In vitro fertilization. The baby's supply of immunologically compatible cord blood was saved for transplantation to his brother. The transplantation was considered successful. In 2009, a group of doctors and specialists in Chennai and Coimbatore registered the successful treatment of thalassemia in a child using a sibling's umbilical cord blood.
It is possible to be cured, with no more need of blood transfusions, thanks to Bone Marrow Transplantation (BMT) from compatible donor, invented in the 1980′s by Prof. Guido Lucarelli. In low-risk young patients, the thalassemia-free survival rate is 87%; the mortality risk is 3%. The drawback is that this curative method requires an HLA-matched compatible donor.
If the patient does not have an HLA-matched compatible donor such as the first curative method requires, there is another curative method called Bone Marrow Transplantation(BMT) from haploidentical mother to child (mismatched donor), in which the donor is the mother. It was invented in 2002 by Dr. Pietro Sodani. The results are these: thalassemia-free survival rate 70%, rejection 23%, and mortality 7%. The best results are with very young patients.