Patients with inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, chronic infections and some types of cancer, often become anemic – a condition called anemia of chronic disease (ACD). While ACD rarely kills patients, it can make their lives miserable. A discovery at EMBL, in collaboration with researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, now links the gene HFE to ACD. The HFE gene is mutated in patients suffering from the common iron overload disease hemochromatosis. This finding gives hope that one day an effective and specific therapy may be developed to treat ACD (featured in Nature Genetics, April 18, 2004).
When people are infected with microbes, the level of iron in their blood drops. This has an important function: iron is essential for the growth of infectious microbes, so one way for the body to fight back is to lower the amount of iron in circulation.
“Unfortunately, while this decrease in iron hinders the spread of parasites and is beneficial in the short term, it can cause anemia," notes EMBL Group Leader Matthias Hentze. “During a long term inflammatory condition, low levels of iron can starve the bone marrow of this metal which is essential for blood cells, leading to ACD.”
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