Since the discovery of the hemochromatosis gene (HFE) in 1996, several novel gene defects have been detected, explaining the mechanism and diversity of iron-overload diseases. At least 4 main types of hereditary hemochromatosis (HH) have been identified. Surprisingly, genes involved in HH encode for proteins that all affect pathways centered around liver hepcidin synthesis and its interaction with ferroportin, an iron exporter in enterocytes and macrophages. Hepcidin concentrations in urine negatively correlate with the severity of HH. Cytokine-mediated increases in hepcidin appear to be an important causative factor in anemia of inflammation, which is characterized by sequestration of iron in the macrophage system. For clinicians, the challenge is now to diagnose HH before irreversible damage develops and, at the same time, to distinguish progressive iron overload from increasingly common diseases with only moderately increased body iron stores, such as the metabolic syndrome. Understanding the molecular regulation of iron homeostasis may be helpful in designing innovative and reliable DNA and protein tests for diagnosis. Subsequently, evidence-based diagnostic strategies must be developed, using both conventional and innovative laboratory tests, to differentiate between the various causes of distortions of iron metabolism. This review describes new insights in mechanisms of iron overload, which are needed to understand new developments in diagnostic medicine.
- © 2006 The American Association for Clinical Chemistry