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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Can mutations in ELA2, neutrophil elastase expression or differential cell toxicity explain sulphasalazine-induced agranulocytosis?

Annica Jacobson*, Håkan Melhus and Mia Wadelius

Author Affiliations

Department of Medical Sciences, Uppsala University, Uppsala University Hospital S- 751 85 Uppsala, Sweden

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BMC Blood Disorders 2004, 4:5  doi:10.1186/1471-2326-4-5

Published: 2 December 2004



Drug-induced agranulocytosis, a severe side effect marked by a deficit or absolute lack of granulocytic white blood cells, is a rare side-effect of the anti-inflammatory drug sulphasalazine. Mutations in the human neutrophil elastase gene (ELA2), causing increased intracellular concentration of this serine protease, inhibits neutrophil differentiation in severe congenital neutropenia (SCN). Since the clinical symptoms of agranulocytosis and SCN are similar, we hypothesized that it may origin from a common genetic variation in ELA2 or that sulphasalazine may affect human neutrophil elastase activity and protein expression.


We screened for genetic differences in ELA2 in DNA from 36 patients who had suffered from sulphasalazine-induced agranulocytosis, and compared them with 72 patients treated with sulphasalazine without blood reactions. We also performed in vitro studies of the blood cell lines HL60 and U937 after sulphasalazine exposure with respect to cell survival index, neutrophil elastase protein expression and activity.


None of the mutations in ELA2, which previously have been reported to be associated with SCN, was found in this material. Protein expression of human neutrophil elastase in lymphoma U937 cells was not affected by treatment with concentrations equivalent to therapeutic doses. Cell survival of lymphoma U937 and promyelocytic leukemia HL-60 cells was not affected in this concentration range, but exhibited a decreased proliferative capacity with higher sulphasalazine concentrations. Interestingly the promyelocytic cells were more sensitive to sulphasalazine than the lymphoma cell line.


Neutrophil elastase expression and ELA2 mutations do, however, not seem to be involved in the etilogy of sulphasalazine-induced agranulocytosis. Why sulphasalazine is more toxic to promyelocytes than to lymphocytes remains to be explained.