The James Blundell Award Lecture 2007: Do we really understand immune red cell destruction?

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We have learned a great deal about immune red blood cell (RBC) destruction since the elaboration of biochemical/immunological interactions of antibodies, complement and macrophages during the past 50 years. We first learned about the direct lysis of RBCs involving complement. We then learned of the role of the macrophage (particularly in the spleen and the liver) in initiating phagocytosis and antibody-dependent cytotoxicity of antibody-coated RBCs. Later, as the complexities of the human complement system were unravelled, we learned that complement-coated RBCs that were not directly haemolysed could interact with macrophages and that specific complement molecules on the RBC membrane could lead to a phagocytic event or the RBC (although heavily coated with complement) could survive normally. The application of isotope-labelling procedures (e.g. 51Cr) for RBC survival (starting in the 1950s) advanced our knowledge considerably. Advances in knowledge in immunology helped us understand the complexity of the immunoglobulins (e.g. subclasses) and the specific receptors on macrophages and their role in immune haemolysis. Nevertheless, after more than 30 years researching this area, I am sometimes embarrassed to realize how much I cannot explain. Why do some patients have severe haemolytic transfusion reactions because of antibodies that are only detectable by one technique or not detectable by any? How do we explain autoimmune haemolytic anaemia with negative direct antiglobulin tests (DATs)? Why do RBCs strongly coated with immunoglobulin (Ig)G1 or IgG3 sometimes have normal survival? Are cells, other than macrophages, involved in immune RBC destruction? Could the relative amount of cytotoxicity vs. phagocytosis explain different clinical findings and response to treatment? How do we explain ‘hyperhaemolysis’ in sickle cell disease? Could novel mechanisms involving IgG glycosylation, CD47, ‘armed’ macrophages, bystander lysis, antibody activated reactive oxygen species, natural killer cells or antibody perturbation of RBC membrane be involved? Why do RBCs die after circulating for 100–120 days in healthy individuals? How should we define a ‘clinically significant’ antibody; how do we evaluate this? So many questions, so little time!

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