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Drugs. 1991 Jun;41(6):875-82.

Current concepts in rational therapy for haemochromatosis.

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Liver Unit, University of Queensland, Royal Brisbane Hospital, Australia.


Genetic haemochromatosis is characterised by an inappropriately high rate of iron absorption by the small intestine. The disease is transmitted as an autosomal recessive condition. The gene frequency in the Caucasian population is approximately 1 in 20 and the disease frequency is 1 in 400. Excessive iron deposition occurs in the liver, pancreas, heart, pituitary and joints and hepatic iron concentrations above approximately 400 mumol/g dry weight are always associated with fibrosis and usually with cirrhosis and progressive liver failure. Accurate diagnosis depends upon the demonstration of elevated hepatic iron stores. An hepatic iron index [hepatic iron concentration (in mumol/g dry weight) divided by patient age] of greater than 2.0 distinguishes homozygous subjects from the other conditions in which slight increases in hepatic iron concentration may occur, e.g. in a subject heterozygous for haemochromatosis or alcoholic liver disease. If cirrhosis is present, patients are at a high risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma. Therefore, they should undergo regular abdominal ultrasound and alpha-fetoprotein estimation. In the absence of cirrhosis, phlebotomy restores life expectancy to normal. Venesection should be continued until all excess iron stores are removed as judged by failure of a rise in haemoglobin concentration on cessation of phlebotomy. Screening of first degree relatives should commence from a young age (e.g. 10 years). If serum ferritin or transferrin saturation are abnormal, liver biopsy should be undertaken. HLA typing of the family allows for the identification of those siblings who are most likely to develop the disease. Secondary iron overload is often multifactorial in origin. Iron chelation therapy with subcutaneous deferoxamine (desferrioxamine) should only commence after careful consideration of the potential benefits in each individual patient.

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