Objective/Background: Sickle cell anemia (SCA) is associated with increased levels of extracellular heme, which is a key mediator of inflammation in this condition. Despite abundant evidence supporting this concept in cell and animal models, few studies addressed the association between heme levels and the development and severity of acute vaso-occlusive crises (VOC) in humans. Methods: A cross-sectional study was conducted in patients with acute VOC. Total extracellular heme levels were measured in both plasma and serum at admission and after convalescence, and correlated with other clinical and laboratory markers of SCA severity. Results: A total of 28 episodes of VOC in 25 patients were included. Heme levels were similar between admission and convalescence, and correlated with the difference between pre and post hemoglobin, and SCA severity estimated by a composite score of clinical and laboratory markers. Heme levels were neither associated with VOC severity nor with markers of hemostasis activation, and were similar to those reported in an independent population of SCA patients at steady state.

Discussion: Acute VOC are not characterized by significant increases in total extracellular heme levels. Studies measuring the fraction of free extracellular heme unbound to proteins are warranted to further refine our understanding of the role of heme in acute VOC.