Mystery solved: How thyroid hormone prods red blood cell production

September 5, 2017, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
blood cells
Scanning electron micrograph of blood cells. From left to right: human erythrocyte, thrombocyte (platelet), leukocyte. Credit: public domain

For more than a century, physicians have anecdotally noted that patients with an underactive thyroid—often caused by iodine deficiency—tended to also have anemia. But the link between thyroid hormone and red blood cell production has remained elusive. That is, until two postdoctoral researchers in the lab of Whitehead Institute Founding Member Harvey Lodish, Xiaofei Gao and Hsiang-Ying "Sherry" Lee, decided to investigate.

During the development of red cells, specialized bone marrow stem cells mature through several stages until they finally turn on the genes for hemoglobin and other red blood cell proteins and become mature red blood cells. In order to simulate this process in the lab, researchers have previously found that culturing blood cell progenitors in serum helps them turn on all of the proper proteins to take the final step and become a red blood cell.

Gao and Lee, now Principal Investigators at Westlake Institute for Advanced Study and Peking University, respectively, wondered if something in the serum was key to flipping the switch to becoming a mature red blood cell. To narrow down which of the molecules in the serum is the trigger, Gao and Lee ran the serum through a standard laboratory filter that many of us use everyday for our tap water: charcoal.

Long known for sucking odors out of the air and flavors from water, charcoal attracts and retains hydrophobic (water repellent) molecules. Gao and Lee noticed that once filtered, the serum no longer supported red blood cell production; they deduced that one of the hydrophobic molecules trapped by charcoal is the key to the final step of red blood cell . Gao and Lee determined that when just the thyroid hormone thyroxin is added back to the , the red blood cell progenitors once again start down the path to maturation. Thyroid hormone's role is so important in stimulating red blood cell maturation, they discovered, that if it is added at an earlier stage of development, red blood cells short-circuit their usual developmental processes and begin turning into mature red blood cells.

Gao and Lee then teased apart the mechanism behind thyroid hormone's effect on red blood cell maturation. They pinpointed the specific type of receptor inside maturing red blood to which thyroid hormone binds. From there, they identified a protein that is necessary for thyroid hormone stimulation and that acts as a regulator of the final step of red blood cell production.

With this better understanding of the connection between and red blood cell maturation, scientists may be able to identify new therapies that trigger maturation in patients with specific types of anemia, including those with an underactive .

The study is published in PNAS.

Explore further: Low thyroid hormone before birth alters growth and development of fetal pancreas

More information: Xiaofei Gao et al. Thyroid hormone receptor beta and NCOA4 regulate terminal erythrocyte differentiation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1711058114

Related Stories

Low thyroid hormone before birth alters growth and development of fetal pancreas

February 1, 2017
Levels of thyroid hormone in babies influence insulin-secreting cells of the pancreas, according to a new study published in the Journal of Physiology.

Scientists show protective effects of suppressing thyroid hormone receptors in retina

May 11, 2017
New research published online in The FASEB Journal suggests that the suppression of thyroid hormone receptor activity locally in the retina protects cone photoreceptor cells in mouse models of human retinal degenerative diseases. ...

New insight into how immune cells are formed

August 10, 2017
In contrast to what has been previously believed, development of blood stem cells into mast cells, a type of specialised immune cell, does not depend on stem cell factor. This has been demonstrated in a new collaborative ...

Transporter of thyroid hormones is crucial for the embryonal development of the brain

February 6, 2017
Thyroid hormones are very important for the development of the brain. And when the transporters of these hormones are not functioning properly, the consequences for the development of the cerebellum or 'the little brain' ...

Researchers engineer new thyroid cells

February 2, 2017
Researchers have discovered a new efficient way to generate thyroid cells, known as thyrocytes, using genetically modified embryonic stem cells.

Poor thyroid function may affect dialysis patients' quality of life and daily living

July 13, 2017
A new study indicates that impaired thyroid function may have detrimental effects on dialysis patients' health and well-being. The findings appear in an upcoming issue of the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology ...

Recommended for you

Exercise-induced hormone irisin triggers bone remodeling in mice

December 13, 2018
Exercise has been touted to build bone mass, but exactly how it actually accomplishes this is a matter of debate. Now, researchers show that an exercise-induced hormone activates cells that are critical for bone remodeling ...

Law professor suggests a way to validate and integrate deep learning medical systems

December 13, 2018
University of Michigan professor W. Nicholson Price, who also has affiliations with Harvard Law School and the University of Copenhagen Faculty of Law, suggests in a Focus piece published in Science Translational Medicine, ...

Faster test for Ebola shows promising results in field trials

December 13, 2018
A team of researchers with members from the U.S., Senegal and Guinea, in cooperation with Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), has developed a faster test for the Ebola virus than those currently in use. In their paper published ...

Pain: Perception and motor impulses arise in brain independently of one another

December 13, 2018
Pain is a negative sensation that we want to get rid of as soon as possible. In order to protect our bodies, we react by withdrawing the hand from heat, for example. This action is usually understood as the consequence of ...

Drug targets for Ebola, Dengue, and Zika viruses found in lab study

December 13, 2018
No drugs are currently available to treat Ebola, Dengue, or Zika viruses, which infect millions of people every year and result in severe illness, birth defects, and even death. New research from the Gladstone Institutes ...

Researchers give new insight to muscular dystrophy patients

December 13, 2018
New research by University of Minnesota scientists has revealed the three-dimensional structure of the DUX4 protein, which is responsible for the disease, facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). Unlike the majority ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.