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Pure Red Cell Aplasia

  • Author: Paul Schick, MD; Chief Editor: Emmanuel C Besa, MD  more...
Updated: Feb 25, 2014


Pure red cell aplasia (PRCA) is an uncommon disorder in which maturation arrest occurs in the formation of erythrocytes. Erythroblasts are virtually absent in bone marrow; however, WBC and platelet production is normal. The anemia due to PRCA is usually normocytic but can be macrocytic. In 1922, Kaznelson recognized that this condition was a different entity from aplastic anemia, which presents with pancytopenia.[1, 2]

The characteristics of PRCA include a severe anemia, a reticulocyte count of less than 1%, and the presence of less than 0.5% mature erythroblasts in the bone marrow. The bone marrow is usually normocellular.

The etiology of PRCA is heterogeneous. A congenital form of PRCA was initially described by Joseph in 1936 and by Diamond and Blackfan in 1938. Congenital PRCA is a lifelong disorder and is associated with physical abnormalities.

PRCA can be transient and reversible. Transient erythroblastopenia of childhood (TEC) can occur after viral infections. PRCA due to medications and infections are often reversible.

In adults, most cases of chronic PRCA are idiopathic. Secondary PRCA occurs in patients with conditions such as autoimmune disorders, thymomas, systemic lupus erythematosus, hematologic malignancies, and solid tumors.

The life expectancy of patients with idiopathic PRCA is about 1-2 decades. The survival of patients with congenital PRCA is limited. The lifespan of patients with secondary PRCA depends on the course of the underlying disorder.



In general, pure red cell aplasia (PRCA) is due to a selective injury, often immunological, that affects the early phase of erythrocyte maturation.


Diamond-Blackfan syndrome is a rare congenital PRCA that is usually detected at birth, or later during the first 18 months of childhood. Affected individuals usually have a macrocytic anemia. The expression of hemoglobin F and surface “I” antigen in erythrocytes is increased, indicating erythrocyte immaturity.

About one third of these patients have developmental defects, including cleft palates, macroglossia, craniofacial defects, thumb or upper limb abnormalities, cardiac defects, and urogenital malformations. Growth is often retarded.[2] A modest increased risk for leukemia and neoplasms is noted.

Diamond-Blackfan syndrome is currently thought to be due to the deletion of genes for ribosomal protein RPS19, which leads to defects in ribosome biogenesis. This ribosomopathy and haploinsufficiency may be responsible for impaired mRNA translation and the activation of the tumor suppressor gene TP53 in this disorder.[4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]

De novo cases of Diamond-Blackfan syndrome are believed to be caused by intrauterine damage to early erythroid stem cells.[3] A familial history of PRCA is evident in approximately 10% of patients.

Transient erythroblastopenia of childhood (TEC) is a self–limiting, benign disorder. A history of a recent viral infection is usually noted.[10] Parvovirus 19 infection should be ruled out.


Acquired primary (idiopathic) PRCA is the most common form of red cell aplasia in adults.

However, PRCA can be secondary to underlying disorders. For example, autoimmune disorders (eg, type 1 diabetes, thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren syndrome) can be responsible. PRCA has been shown to be secondary to T-cell inhibition of marrow erythroid cells. PRCA can also be secondary to and is associated with the following:

  • Thymoma (1-15%)
  • Hematological malignancies (eg, B- and T-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia)
  • T-cell large granular lymphocyte leukemia and solid tumors
  • Infections
  • Drugs
  • Pregnancy [11]
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Renal failure
  • Good syndrome (thymoma with combined B- and T-cell deficiency)

PRCA can occur following ABO-mismatched marrow transplantation.[12]

The incidence of PRCA has increased in patients with chronic renal disease who have received epoetin therapy. This has been ascribed to the generation of antiepoetin antibodies, which occurs more often with epoetin-alpha than with epoetin-beta. This complication may be avoided by using an erythropoietin-mimicking human antibody, which stimulates erythropoiesis but does not appear to induce antiepoetin antibodies and PRCA.[13, 14, 15]



Infections such as the following can cause PRCA[16, 17, 18] :

  • HIV infection
  • Respiratory tract infections
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Primary atypical pneumonia
  • Infectious mononucleosis
  • Mumps
  • Viral hepatitis

Most cases of acute transient PRCA are caused by parvovirus B19 infection.[19, 20] Parvovirus B19 can cross the placenta in infected women and can destroy erythroid cells in the fetus and induce spontaneous abortions. Parvovirus 19 infections can persist longer in immunocompromised patients.

A partial list of medications thought to cause PRCA is as follows[21, 22] :

  • Antiepileptic medications (eg, phenytoin, carbamazepine, sodium valproate)
  • Mycophenolate
  • Azathioprine
  • Chloramphenicol
  • Thiamphenicol
  • Sulfonamides
  • Isoniazid
  • Procainamide
  • Clopidogrel [23]

Originally, thymoma was cited as the primary cause of acquired PRCA. However, subsequent studies have revealed that thymomas are responsible for a small percent of all cases of PRCA. Conversely, only 7% of patients with thymomas had PRCA.



Pure red cell aplasia (PRCA) is an uncommon disorder. The idiopathic form is the most common type of PRCA. The incidence of transient and reversible PRCA that occurs in childhood and in adults secondary to medications and infections is probably underestimated. The reason for this underestimation is the anemia is self-limiting. Acquired secondary PRCA is not common. Diamond-Blackfan syndrome is rare.

No racial, age, or sex predilection is reported in PRCA. However, females are more likely to have autoimmune disorders.



Prognosis varies among the different types of pure red cell aplasia (PRCA).

Transient erythroblastopenia and other PRCA disorders in children and adults are benign with an excellent prognosis.

The prognosis of secondary PRCA depends on the course of the underlying condition, such as a thymoma or a hematological malignancy. About 30% of PRCA cases due to thymomas are reversed by thymectomy.

Most cases of PRCA are idiopathic. About 68% respond to intervention. However, relapses are common. The lifespan of these patients is about 1-2 decades.

Most patients with Diamond-Blackfan syndrome respond to corticosteroid therapy but are prone to relapses. Estimating the lifespan of patients with this disorder is difficult because it is rare.

Prognosis is also influenced by the complications of therapy. Hemosiderosis can develop in multitransfused patients. Corticosteroid therapy can lead to osteopenia and osteoporosis and infections. PRCA can evolve into aplastic anemia and acute myelogenous leukemia, which have high morbidity and mortality rates. Infections acquired during blood product transfusions can also affect prognosis.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Paul Schick, MD Emeritus Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University; Research Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Drexel University College of Medicine; Adjunct Professor of Medicine, Lankenau Hospital

Paul Schick, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Society of Hematology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Chief Editor

Emmanuel C Besa, MD Professor Emeritus, Department of Medicine, Division of Hematologic Malignancies and Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation, Kimmel Cancer Center, Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Emmanuel C Besa, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Education, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American College of Clinical Pharmacology, American Federation for Medical Research, American Society of Hematology, New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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