Clinical Review

Aplastic Anemia: Evaluation and Diagnosis

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Aplastic anemia is a clinical and pathological entity of bone marrow failure that causes progressive loss of hematopoietic progenitor stem cells (HPSC), resulting in pancytopenia.1 Patients may present along a spectrum, ranging from being asymptomatic with incidental findings on peripheral blood testing to having life-threatening neutropenic infections or bleeding. Aplastic anemia results from either inherited or acquired causes, and the pathophysiology and treatment approach vary significantly between these 2 causes. Therefore, recognition of inherited marrow failure diseases, such as Fanconi anemia and telomere biology disorders, is critical to establishing the management plan. This article reviews the epidemiology, pathophysiology, clinical presentation, and diagnosis of aplastic anemia. Treatment of aplastic anemia is reviewed in a separate article.


Aplastic anemia is a rare disorder, with an incidence of approximately 1.5 to 7 cases per million individuals per year.2,3 A recent Scandinavian study reported that the incidence of aplastic anemia among the Swedish population is 2.3 cases per million individuals per year, with a median age at diagnosis of 60 years and a slight female predominance (52% versus 48%, respectively).2 This data is congruent with prior observations made in Barcelona, where the incidence was 2.34 cases per million individuals per year, albeit with a slightly higher incidence in males compared to females (2.54 versus 2.16, respectively).4 The incidence of aplastic anemia varies globally, with a disproportionate increase in incidence seen among Asian populations, with rates as high as 8.8 per million individuals per year.3-5 This variation in incidence in Asia versus other countries has not been well explained. There appears to be a bimodal distribution, with incidence peaks seen in young adults and in older adults.2,3,6


Acquired Aplastic Anemia

The leading hypothesis as to the cause of most cases of acquired aplastic anemia is that a dysregulated immune system destroys hematopoietic progenitor cells. Inciting etiologies implicated in the development of acquired aplastic anemia include pregnancy, infection, medications, and exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene.1,7 The historical understanding of acquired aplastic anemia implicates cytotoxic T-lymphocyte–mediated destruction of CD-34+ hematopoietic stem cells.1,8,9 This hypothesis served as the basis for treatment of acquired aplastic anemia with immunosuppressive therapy, predominantly anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG) combined with cyclosporine A.1,8 More recent work has focused on cytokine interactions, particularly the suppressive role of interferon (IFN) -γ on hematopoietic stem cells independent of T-lymphocyte–mediated hematopoietic destruction, which has been demonstrated in a murine model.8 The interaction of IFN-γ with the hematopoietic stem cells pool is dynamic. IFN-γ levels are elevated during an acute inflammatory response such as a viral infection, providing further basis for the immune-mediated nature of the acquired disease.10 Specifically, in vitro studies suggest the effects of IFN-γ on HPSC may be secondary to interruption of thrombopoietin and its respective signaling pathways, which play a key role in hematopoietic stem cell renewal.11 Eltrombopag, a thrombopoietin receptor antagonist, has shown promise in the treatment of refractory aplastic anemia, with studies indicating that its effectiveness is independent of IFN-γ levels.11,12

Inherited Aplastic Anemia

The inherited marrow failure syndromes (IMFS) are a group of disorders characterized by cellular maintenance and repair defects, leading to cytopenias, increased cancer risk, structural defects, and risk of end organ damage such as liver cirrhosis and pulmonary fibrosis.13-15 The most common diseases include Fanconi anemia, dyskeratosis congenita/telomere biology disorders, Diamond-Blackfan anemia, and Shwachman-Diamond syndrome, but with the advent of whole exome sequencing new syndromes continue to be discovered. While classically these disorders present in children, adult presentations of these syndromes are now commonplace. Broadly, the pathophysiology of inherited aplastic anemia relates to the defective hematopoietic progenitor cells and an accelerated decline of the hematopoietic stem cell compartment.

The most common IMFS, Fanconi anemia and telomere biology disorders, are associated with numerous mutations in DNA damage repair pathways and telomere maintenance pathways. TERT, DKC, and TERC mutations are most commonly associated with dyskeratosis congenita, but may also be found infrequently in patients with aplastic anemia presenting at an older age in the absence of the classic phenotypical features.1,16,17 The recognition of an underlying genetic disorder or telomere biology disorder leading to constitutional aplastic anemia is significant, as these conditions are associated not only with marrow failure, but also endocrinopathies, organ fibrosis, and solid organ malignancies.13-15 In particular, mutations in the TERT and TERC genes have been associated with dyskeratosis congenita as well as pulmonary fibrosis and cirrhosis.18,19 The implications of early diagnosis of an IMFS lie in the approach to treatment and prognosis.

Clonal Disorders and Secondary Malignancies

Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and secondary acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are 2 clonal disorders that may arise from a background of aplastic anemia.9,20,21 Hypoplastic MDS can be difficult to differentiate from aplastic anemia at diagnosis based on morphology alone, although recent work has demonstrated that molecular testing for somatic mutations in ASXL1, DNMT3A, and BCOR can aid in differentiating a subset of aplastic anemia patients who are more likely to progress to MDS.21 Clonal populations of cells harboring 6p uniparental disomy are seen in more than 10% of patients with aplastic anemia on cytogenetic analysis, which can help differentiate the diseases.9 Yoshizato and colleagues found lower rates of ASXL1 and DNMT3A mutations in patients with aplastic anemia as compared with patients with MDS or AML. In this study, patients with aplastic anemia had higher rates of mutations in PIGA (reflecting the increased paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria [PNH]clonality seen in aplastic anemia) and BCOR.9 Mutations were also found in genes commonly mutated in MDS and AML including TET2, RUNX1, TP53, and JAK2, albeit at lower frequencies.9 These mutations as a whole have not predicted response to therapy or prognosis. However, when performing survival analysis in patients with specific mutations, those commonly encountered in MDS/AML (ASXL1, DNMT3A, TP53, RUNX1, CSMD1) are associated with faster progression to overt MDS/AML and decreased overall survival (OS),20,21 suggesting these mutations may represent early clonality that can lead to clonal evolution and the development of secondary malignancies. Conversely, mutations in BCOR and BCORL appear to identify patients who may have a favorable outcome in response to immunosuppressive therapy and, similar to patients with PIGA mutations, improved OS.9

Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria

In addition to having an increased risk of myelodysplasia and malignancy due to the development of a dominant pre-malignant clone, patients with aplastic anemia often harbor progenitor cell clones associated with PNH.1,17 PNH clones have been identified in more than 50% of patients with aplastic anemia.22,23 PNH represents a clonal disorder of hematopoiesis in which cells harbor X-linked somatic mutations in the PIGA gene; this gene encodes a protein responsible for the synthesis of glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI) anchors on the cell surface.22,24 The lack of these cell surface proteins, specifically CD55 (also known as decay accelerating factor) and CD59 (also known as membrane inhibitor of reactive lysis) predisposes red cells to increased complement-mediated lysis.25 The exact mechanism for the development of these clones in patients with aplastic anemia is not fully understood. Current theories hypothesize that these clones are protected from the immune-mediated destruction of normal hematopoietic stem cells due to the absence of the cell surface proteins.1,20 The role of these clones over time in patients with aplastic anemia is less clear, though recent work demonstrated that despite differences in clonality over the disease course, aplastic anemia patients with small PNH clones are less likely to develop overt hemolysis and larger PNH clones compared to patients harboring larger (≥ 50%) PNH clones at diagnosis.23,26,27 Additionally, PNH clones in patients with aplastic anemia infrequently become clinically significant.27 It should be noted that these conditions exist along a continuum; that is, patients with aplastic anemia may develop PNH clones, while conversely patients with PNH may develop aplastic anemia.20 Patients with PNH clones should be followed via peripheral blood flow cytometry in addition to complete blood count to track clonal stability and identify clinically significant PNH among aplastic anemia patients.28

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