/thal'euh see"mee euh/, n. Pathol.a hereditary form of anemia, occurring chiefly in people of Mediterranean origin, marked by the abnormal synthesis of hemoglobin and a consequent shortened life span of red blood cells. Also called Cooley's anemia.[1932; < Gk thálass(a) sea (alluding to the Mediterranean Sea; the anemia was first reported among children in Mediterranean countries) + -EMIA]
* * *group of blood disorders (blood disease) characterized by a deficiency of hemoglobin, the blood protein that transports oxygen to the tissues. Hemoglobin is composed of a porphyrin compound (heme) and globin. Thalassemia is caused by genetically determined abnormalities in the synthesis of one or more of the polypeptide chains of globin. The various forms of the disorder are distinguished by different combinations of three variables: the particular polypeptide chain or chains that are affected; whether the affected chains are synthesized in sharply reduced quantities or not synthesized at all; and whether the disorder is inherited from one parent (heterozygous) or from both parents (homozygous).The five different polypeptide chains are: alpha, α; beta, β; gamma, γ; delta, δ; and epsilon, ε. No thalassemic disorder is known to involve the ε-chain. Involvement of the γ-chain or δ-chain is rare. Of the 19 variations of thalassemic inheritance, a few (such as the two heterozygous α-thalassemias) are benign and generally exhibit no clinical symptoms. Other forms exhibit mild anemia, while the most severe form (homozygous α-thalassemia) usually causes premature birth, either stillborn or with death following within a few hours.Thalassemia major (homozygous β-thalassemia), also known as Cooley anemia, shows clinical characteristics a few months following birth: anemia, enlarged spleen, and often enlarged liver. Infections commonly develop. At about the age of four years, stunted physical growth becomes apparent. Many patients develop abnormally protruding upper jaws, prominent cheekbones, and marrow expansion in the long bones, ribs, or vertebrae, which fracture easily. Treatment of thalassemia major involves chronic blood transfusions (blood transfusion).Thalassemia minor (heterozygous β-thalassemia) is characterized by mild anemia, often presenting no symptoms but occasionally complicated with slight enlargement of the spleen.It is thought that the potentially lethal thalassemia gene is retained in the population because it provides some protection from malaria in the heterozygous state. Thalassemia genes are widely distributed in the world but are found most often among people with ancestors from the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and southern Asia. Thalassemia has also been found in some northern Europeans and Native Americans. Among persons of African descent the disease is unusually mild.
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