PV is a clonal disorder involving a multipotent hematopoietic progenitor cell in which phenotypically normal red cells, granulocytes, and platelets accumulate in the absence of a recognizable physiologic stimulus. The most common of the chronic MPNs, PV occurs in 2.5 per 100,000 persons, sparing no adult age group and increasing with age to rates over 10/100,000. Familial transmission is infrequent, and women predominate among sporadic cases.
The etiology of PV is unknown. Although nonrandom chromosome abnormalities such as deletion 20q and trisomy 8 and 9 have been documented in up to 30% of untreated PV patients, unlike CML, no consistent cytogenetic abnormality has been associated with the disorder. However, a mutation in the autoinhibitory pseudokinase domain of the tyrosine kinase JAK2—that replaces valine with phenylalanine (V617F), causing constitutive kinase activation—appears to have a central role in the pathogenesis of PV.
JAK2 is a member of an evolutionarily well-conserved, nonreceptor tyrosine kinase family and serves as the cognate tyrosine kinase for the erythropoietin and thrombopoietin receptors. It also functions as an obligate chaperone for these receptors in the Golgi apparatus and is responsible for their cell-surface expression. The conformational change induced in the erythropoietin and thrombopoietin receptors following binding to their respective cognate ligands, erythropoietin or thrombopoietin, leads to JAK2 autophosphorylation, receptor phosphorylation, and phosphorylation of proteins involved in cell proliferation, differentiation, and resistance to apoptosis. Transgenic animals lacking JAK2 die as embryos from severe anemia. Constitutive activation of JAK2, on the other hand, explains the erythropoietin hypersensitivity, erythropoietin-independent erythroid colony formation, rapid terminal differentiation, increase in Bcl-XL expression, and apoptosis resistance in the absence of erythropoietin that characterize the in vitro behavior of PV erythroid progenitor cells.
Importantly, the JAK2 gene is located on the short arm of chromosome 9, and loss of heterozygosity on chromosome 9p due to mitotic recombination is the most common cytogenetic abnormality in PV. The segment of 9p involved contains the JAK2 locus, and loss of heterozygosity in this region leads to homozygosity for JAK2 V617F. More than 95% of PV patients express this mutation, as do approximately 50% of PMF and ET patients. Homozygosity for the mutation occurs in approximately 30% of PV patients and 60% of PMF patients but is rare in ET. Over time, a portion of PV JAK2 V617F heterozygotes become homozygotes due to mitotic recombination, but usually not after 10 years of the disease. Most PV patients who do not express JAK2 V617F express a mutation in exon 12 of the kinase and are not clinically different from those who do, nor do JAK2 V617F heterozygotes differ clinically from homozygotes. Interestingly, the predisposition to acquire mutations in JAK2 appears to be associated with a specific JAK2 gene haplotype, GGCC. JAK2 V617F is the basis for many of the phenotypic and biochemical characteristics of PV such as elevation of the leukocyte alkaline phosphatase (LAP) score; however, it cannot solely account for the entire PV phenotype and is probably not the initiating lesion in the three MPNs. First, PV patients with the same phenotype and documented clonal disease lack any mutation of JAK2. Second, ET and PMF patients have the same mutation but different clinical phenotypes. Third, familial PV can occur without the mutation, even when other members of the same family express it. Fourth, not all the cells of the malignant clone express JAK2 V617F. Fifth, JAK2 V617F has been observed in patients with long-standing idiopathic erythrocytosis. Sixth, in some patients, JAK2 V617F appears to be acquired after another mutation. Finally, in some JAK2 V617F–positive PV or ET patients, acute leukemia can occur in a JAK2 V617F–negative progenitor cell. However, although JAK2 V617F alone may not be sufficient to cause PV, it appears essential for the transformation of ET to PV, although not for its transformation to PMF.
Although isolated thrombocytosis, leukocytosis, or splenomegaly may be the initial presenting manifestation of PV, most often the disorder is first recognized by the incidental discovery of a high hemoglobin or hematocrit. With the exception of aquagenic pruritus, no symptoms distinguish PV from other causes of erythrocytosis.
Uncontrolled erythrocytosis causes hyperviscosity, leading to neurologic symptoms such as vertigo, tinnitus, headache, visual disturbances, and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). Systolic hypertension is also a feature of the red cell mass elevation. In some patients, venous or arterial thrombosis may be the presenting manifestation of PV. Any vessel can be affected; but cerebral, cardiac, or mesenteric vessels are most commonly involved. Intraabdominal venous thrombosis is particularly common in young women and may be catastrophic if a sudden and complete obstruction of the hepatic vein occurs. Indeed, PV should be suspected in any patient who develops hepatic vein thrombosis. Digital ischemia, easy bruising, epistaxis, acid-peptic disease, or gastrointestinal hemorrhage may occur due to vascular stasis or thrombocytosis. Erythema, burning, and pain in the extremities, a symptom complex known as erythromelalgia, are other complications of the thrombocytosis of PV due to increased platelet stickiness. Given the large turnover of hematopoietic cells, hyperuricemia with secondary gout, uric acid stones, and symptoms due to hypermetabolism can also complicate the disorder.
When PV presents with erythrocytosis in combination with leukocytosis, thrombocytosis, or splenomegaly or a combination of these, the diagnosis is apparent. However, when patients present with an elevated hemoglobin or hematocrit alone, the diagnostic evaluation is more complex because of the many diagnostic possibilities (Table 131-2). Furthermore, unless the hemoglobin level is ≥20 g/dL (hematocrit ≥60%), it is not possible to distinguish true erythrocytosis from disorders causing plasma volume contraction. This is because uniquely in PV, in contrast to other causes of true erythrocytosis, there is expansion of the plasma volume, which can mask the elevated red cell mass; thus, red cell mass and plasma volume determinations are necessary to establish the presence of an absolute erythrocytosis and to distinguish this from relative erythrocytosis due to a reduction in plasma volume alone (also known as stress or spurious erythrocytosis or Gaisböck’s syndrome). Figure 77-18 illustrates a diagnostic algorithm for the evaluation of suspected erythrocytosis. Assay for JAK2 mutations in the presence of a normal arterial oxygen saturation provides an alternative diagnostic approach to erythrocytosis when red cell mass and plasma volume determinations are not available; a normal serum erythropoietin level does not exclude the presence of PV, but an elevated erythropoietin level is more consistent with a secondary cause for the erythrocytosis.
TABLE 131-2Causes of Erythrocytosis ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 131-2Causes of Erythrocytosis
|Relative Erythrocytosis |
|Hemoconcentration secondary to dehydration, diuretics, ethanol abuse, androgens, or tobacco abuse |
|Absolute Erythrocytosis |
Carbon monoxide intoxication
Right to left cardiac or vascular shunts
Sleep apnea syndrome
Renal artery stenosis
Focal sclerosing or membranous glomerulonephritis
Familial (with normal hemoglobin function)
Erythropoietin receptor mutation
VHL mutations (Chuvash polycythemia)
Other laboratory studies that may aid in diagnosis include the red cell count, mean corpuscular volume, and red cell distribution width (RDW), particularly when the hematocrit or hemoglobin levels are less than 60% or 20 g/dL, respectively. Only three situations cause microcytic erythrocytosis: β thalassemia trait, hypoxic erythrocytosis, and PV. With β thalassemia trait, the RDW is normal, whereas with hypoxic erythrocytosis and PV, the RDW may be elevated due to associated iron deficiency. Today, however, the assay for JAK2 V617F has superseded other tests for establishing the diagnosis of PV. Of course, in patients with associated acid-peptic disease, occult gastrointestinal bleeding may lead to a presentation with hypochromic, microcytic anemia, masking the presence of PV.
A bone marrow aspirate and biopsy provide no specific diagnostic information because these may be normal or indistinguishable from ET or PMF. Similarly, no specific cytogenetic abnormality is associated with the disease, and the absence of a cytogenetic marker does not exclude the diagnosis.
Many of the clinical complications of PV relate directly to the increase in blood viscosity associated with red cell mass elevation and indirectly to the increased turnover of red cells, leukocytes, and platelets with the attendant increase in uric acid and cytokine production. The latter appears to be responsible for constitutional symptoms. Peptic ulcer disease can also be due to Helicobacter pylori infection, the incidence of which is increased in PV, while the pruritus associated with this disorder may be a consequence of mast cell activation by JAK2 V617F. A sudden increase in spleen size can be associated with painful splenic infarction. Myelofibrosis appears to be part of the natural history of the disease but is a reactive, reversible process that does not itself impede hematopoiesis and by itself has no prognostic significance. In approximately 15% of patients, however, myelofibrosis is accompanied by significant extramedullary hematopoiesis, hepatosplenomegaly, and transfusion-dependent anemia, which are manifestations of stem cell failure. The organomegaly can cause significant mechanical discomfort, portal hypertension, and progressive cachexia. Although the incidence of acute nonlymphocytic leukemia is increased in PV, the incidence of acute leukemia in patients not exposed to chemotherapy or radiation therapy is low. Interestingly, chemotherapy, including hydroxyurea, has been associated with acute leukemia in JAK2 V617F–negative stem cells in some PV patients. Erythromelalgia is a curious syndrome of unknown etiology associated with thrombocytosis, primarily involving the lower extremities and usually manifested by erythema, warmth, and pain of the affected appendage and occasionally digital infarction. It occurs with a variable frequency and is usually responsive to salicylates. Some of the central nervous system symptoms observed in patients with PV, such as ocular migraine, appear to represent a variant of erythromelalgia.
Left uncontrolled, erythrocytosis can lead to thrombosis involving vital organs such as the liver, heart, brain, or lungs. Patients with massive splenomegaly are particularly prone to thrombotic events because the associated increase in plasma volume masks the true extent of the red cell mass elevation measured by the hematocrit or hemoglobin level. A “normal” hematocrit or hemoglobin level in a PV patient with massive splenomegaly should be considered indicative of an elevated red cell mass until proven otherwise.
TREATMENT Polycythemia Vera
PV is generally an indolent disorder, the clinical course of which is measured in decades, and its management should reflect its tempo. Thrombosis due to erythrocytosis is the most significant complication and often the presenting manifestation, and maintenance of the hemoglobin level at ≤140 g/L (14 g/dL; hematocrit <45%) in men and ≤120 g/L (12 g/dL; hematocrit <42%) in women is mandatory to avoid thrombotic complications. Phlebotomy serves initially to reduce hyperviscosity by bringing the red cell mass into the normal range while further expanding the plasma volume. Periodic phlebotomies thereafter serve to maintain the red cell mass within the normal range and to induce a state of iron deficiency that prevents an accelerated reexpansion of the red cell mass. In most PV patients, once an iron-deficient state is achieved, phlebotomy is usually only required at 3-month intervals. Neither phlebotomy nor iron deficiency increases the platelet count relative to the effect of the disease itself, and thrombocytosis is not correlated with thrombosis in PV, in contrast to the strong correlation between erythrocytosis and thrombosis in this disease. The use of salicylates as a tonic against thrombosis in PV patients is not only potentially harmful if the red cell mass is not controlled by phlebotomy, but is also an unproven remedy. Anticoagulants are only indicated when a thrombosis has occurred and can be difficult to monitor if the red cell mass is substantially elevated owing to the artifactual imbalance between the test tube anticoagulant and plasma that occurs when blood from these patients is assayed for prothrombin or partial thromboplastin activity. Asymptomatic hyperuricemia (<10 mg/dL) requires no therapy, but allopurinol should be administered to avoid further elevation of the uric acid when chemotherapy is used to reduce splenomegaly or leukocytosis or to treat pruritus. Generalized pruritus intractable to antihistamines or antidepressants such as doxepin can be a major problem in PV; interferon α (IFN-α), psoralens with ultraviolet light in the A range (PUVA) therapy, and hydroxyurea are other methods of palliation. Asymptomatic thrombocytosis requires no therapy unless the platelet count is sufficiently high to cause bleeding due an acquired form of von Willebrand’s disease in which there is adsorption and proteolysis of high-molecular-weight von Willebrand factor (VWF) multimers by the expanded platelet mass. Symptomatic splenomegaly can be treated with pegylated IFN-α. Pegylated IFN-α can also produce complete hematologic and molecular remissions in PV, and its role in this disorder is currently under investigation. Anagrelide, a phosphodiesterase inhibitor, can reduce the platelet count and, if tolerated, is preferable to hydroxyurea because it lacks marrow toxicity and is protective against venous thrombosis. A reduction in platelet number may be necessary for the treatment of erythromelalgia or ocular migraine if salicylates are not effective or if the platelet count is sufficiently high to increase the risk of hemorrhage but only to the degree that symptoms are alleviated. Alkylating agents and radioactive sodium phosphate (32P) are leukemogenic in PV, and their use should be avoided. If a cytotoxic agent must be used, hydroxyurea is preferred, but this drug does not prevent either thrombosis or myelofibrosis in PV, is itself leukemogenic, and should be used for as short a time as possible. Previously, PV patients with massive splenomegaly unresponsive to reduction by chemotherapy or interferon required splenectomy. However, with the introduction of the nonspecific JAK2 inhibitor ruxolitinib, it has been possible in the majority of patients with PV complicated by myelofibrosis and myeloid metaplasia to reduce spleen size while at the same time alleviating constitutional symptoms to due to cytokine release. This drug is currently undergoing clinical trials in PV patients intolerant of hydroxyurea. In some patients with end-stage disease, pulmonary hypertension may develop due to fibrosis or extramedullary hematopoiesis. A role for allogeneic bone marrow transplantation in PV has not been defined.
Most patients with PV can live long lives without functional impairment when their red cell mass is effectively managed with phlebotomy alone. Chemotherapy is never indicated to control the red cell mass unless venous access is inadequate.