What happens when red blood cells (RBCs) sickle?

Updated: May 12, 2021
  • Author: Joseph E Maakaron, MD; Chief Editor: Emmanuel C Besa, MD  more...
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When RBCs sickle, they gain Na+ and lose K+. Membrane permeability to Ca++ increases, possibly due, in part, to impairment in the Ca++ pump that depends on adenosine triphosphatase (ATPase). The intracellular Ca++ concentration rises to 4 times the reference level. The membrane becomes more rigid, possibly due to changes in cytoskeletal protein interactions; however, these changes are not found consistently. In addition, whether calcium is responsible for membrane rigidity is not clear.

Membrane vesicle formation occurs, and the lipid bilayer is perturbed. The outer leaflet has increased amounts of phosphatidyl ethanolamine and contains phosphatidylserine. The latter may play a role as a contributor to thrombosis, acting as a catalyst for plasma clotting factors. Membrane rigidity can be reversed in vitro by replacing HbS with HbA, suggesting that HbS interacts with the cell membrane.

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