Hereditary persistence of fetal haemoglobin (HPFH) is a clinically important condition in which a change in the developmental specificity of the gamma-globin genes results in varying levels of expression of fetal haemoglobin in the adult. The condition is benign and can significantly alleviate the symptoms of thalassaemia or sickle cell anaemia when co-inherited with these disorders. We have examined structure-function relationships in the -117 HPFH gamma promoter by analysing the effect of mutating specific promoter elements on the functioning of the wild-type and HPFH promoters. We find that CCAAT box mutants dramatically affect expression from the HPFH promoter in adult blood but have little effect on embryonic/fetal expression from the wild-type promoter. Our results suggest that there are substantial differences in the structure of the wild-type gamma promoter expressed early in development and the adult HPFH promoter. Together with previous results, this suggests that gamma silencing is a complex multifactorial phenomenon rather than being the result of a simple repressor binding to the promoter. We present a model for gamma-globin gene silencing that has significant implications for attempts to reactivate the gamma promoters in human adults by pharmacological means.

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EMBO Journal
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam