INSERM U. 129, CHU Cochin-Port-Royal, Paris.
Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH) is an acquired blood disease with distinct and rather peculiar characteristics that have puzzled hematologists for more than a century. PNH cells are deficient in a set of membrane proteins that have in common a glycolipid anchor. We refer to this combination of deficiencies as the PNH abnormality or the PNH phenotype. Biochemical analysis has recently made it possible to pinpoint the metabolic block in PNH cells to an early step in the biosynthesis of the glycolipid anchor. This block is due in turn to the deficiency of a protein, called PIG-A, which is encoded by an X-linked gene. Expression cloning of the PIG-A gene has been followed by the identification in patients with PNH of somatic mutations in this gene that inactivate or impair the function of the PIG-A protein. These findings explain in full the molecular basis of the PNH abnormality, but they do not explain how the PNH clone, which is biochemically defective, can expand to the extent of contributing a substantial proportion of the patient's hematopoiesis. Thus a second factor is required to explain the pathogenesis of PNH. This is most likely the coexistence of an element of bone marrow failure that produces, paradoxically, a survival or growth advantage for the PNH clone. The notion that the injury causing failure of normal stem cells spares selectively cells with the PNH phenotype is supported by a number of observations, including the finding of multiple independently arisen PNH clones in patients with PNH.