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ESSENTIALS OF DIAGNOSIS

  • Acquired hemolytic anemia caused by IgG autoantibody.

  • Spherocytes and reticulocytosis on peripheral blood smear.

  • Positive antiglobulin (Coombs) test.

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS

Autoimmune hemolytic anemia is an acquired disorder in which an IgG autoantibody is formed that binds to a red blood cell membrane protein and does so most avidly at body temperature (ie, a “warm” autoantibody). The antibody is most commonly directed against a basic component of the Rh system present on most human red blood cells. When IgG antibodies coat the red blood cell, the Fc portion of the antibody is recognized by macrophages present in the spleen and other portions of the reticuloendothelial system. The interaction between splenic macrophages and the antibody-coated red blood cell results in removal of red blood cell membrane and the formation of a spherocyte due to the decrease in surface-to-volume ratio of the surviving red blood cell. These spherocytic cells have decreased deformability and are unable to squeeze through the 2-mcm fenestrations of splenic sinusoids and become trapped in the red pulp of the spleen. When large amounts of IgG are present on red blood cells, complement may be fixed. Direct complement lysis of cells is rare, but the presence of C3b on the surface of red blood cells allows Kupffer cells in the liver to participate in the hemolytic process via C3b receptors. The destruction of red blood cells in the spleen and liver designates this as extravascular hemolysis.

Approximately one-half of all cases of autoimmune hemolytic anemia are idiopathic. The disorder may also be seen in association with systemic lupus erythematosus, other rheumatic disorders, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), or lymphomas. It must be distinguished from drug-induced hemolytic anemia. When penicillin (or other medications, especially cefotetan, ceftriaxone, and piperacillin) coats the red blood cell membrane, the autoantibody is directed against the membrane-drug complex. Fludarabine, an antineoplastic, causes autoimmune hemolytic anemia through its immunosuppression; there is defective self- versus non–self-immune surveillance permitting the escape of a B-cell clone, which produces the offending autoantibody.

CLINICAL FINDINGS

A. Symptoms and Signs

Autoimmune hemolytic anemia typically produces an anemia of rapid onset that may be life-threatening. Patients complain of fatigue and dyspnea and may present with angina pectoris or heart failure. On examination, jaundice and splenomegaly are usually present.

B. Laboratory Findings

The anemia is of variable degree but may be very severe, with hematocrit of less than 10%. Reticulocytosis is present, and spherocytes are seen on the peripheral blood smear. In cases of severe hemolysis, the stressed bone marrow may also release nucleated red blood cells (eFigure 13–16). As with other hemolytic disorders, the serum indirect bilirubin is increased and the haptoglobin is low. Approximately 10% of patients with autoimmune hemolytic anemia have coincident immune thrombocytopenia (Evans syndrome).

eFigure 13–16.

Warm autoimmune hemolytic anemia. (Peripheral blood, 50 ×.) ...

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