Abstract

The β-hemoglobinopathies are inherited disorders resulting from altered coding potential or expression of the adult β-globin gene. Impaired expression of β-globin reduces adult hemoglobin (α 2 β 2 ) production, the hallmark of β-thalassemia. A single-base mutation at codon 6 leads to formation of HbS (α 2 β S2 ) and sickle cell disease. While the basis of these diseases is known, therapy remains largely supportive. Bone marrow transplantation is the only curative therapy. Patients with elevated levels of fetal hemoglobin (HbF, α 2 γ 2 ) as adults exhibit reduced symptoms and enhanced survival. The β-globin gene locus is a paradigm of cell- and developmental stage-specific regulation. Although the principal erythroid cell transcription factors are known, mechanisms responsible for silencing of the γ-globin gene were obscure until application of genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Here, we review findings in the field. GWAS identified BCL11A as a candidate negative regulator of γ-globin expression. Subsequent studies have established BCL11A as a quantitative repressor. GWAS-related single-nucleotide polymorphisms lie within an essential erythroid enhancer of the BCL11A gene. Disruption of a discrete region within the enhancer reduces BCL11A expression and induces HbF expression, providing the basis for gene therapy using gene editing tools. A recently identified, second silencing factor, leukemia/lymphoma-related factor/Pokemon, shares features with BCL11A, including interaction with the nucleosome remodeling deacetylase repressive complex. These findings suggest involvement of a common pathway for HbF silencing. In addition, we discuss other factors that may be involved in γ-globin gene silencing and their potential manipulation for therapeutic benefit in treating the β-hemoglobinopathies.

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