New data reveals prevalence of iron overload in UK Biobank population

December 21, 2018
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  • Research from 8865 UK BioBank participants shows 1 in 20 have unhealthy accumulation of liver iron.
  • 8% of population had elevated liver iron levels, and red meat consumption in these people may be harmful.
  • Quantitative Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was used as a painless, quick way to measure liver health.

OXFORD, December 21, 2018 – New research reveals 4.8% of the UK population have elevated liver iron. The study, conducted by the University of Westminster and Perspectum Diagnostics, used MRI to non-invasively assess levels of liver iron.

Researchers studied the burden of liver disease from excess fat and iron storage within the UK BioBank population. Over 20% have excess fat in their livers, and 4.8% have elevated liver iron levels, with 1.3%  having elevated levels of both fat and iron. The numbers of individuals with abnormal levels for two key risk factors of significant liver disease are considerable and represent potentially 2 million NHS patients. The UK health system is under-prepared for the current liver disease epidemic.  

Iron overload is traditionally associated with genetic disorders such as hereditary haemochromatosis (HH) or as a results of repeated blood transfusions. However elevated levels of liver iron are now often associated with metabolic diseases including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and NAFLD. Elevated liver iron is associated with the development of fibrosis and cirrhosis and thought to be involved in the progression from fibrosis to liver cancer.  

Diagnostic pathways for liver iron currently rely on simple blood tests, which often miss early stages of iron accumulation, and liver biopsy. However, ferritin levels can be influenced by liver damage and inflammation, and in many cases do not correlate well with liver iron stores. Therefore, the development of robust, widely available and non-invasive techniques for the measurement of liver iron are needed. This study used the quantitative MRI behind LiverMultiScan to safely and painlessly assess liver health.  

Haemochromatosis UK, the national charity representing patients with iron overload, have recently launched an awareness campaign in the House of Commons, and received support from the UK government, the National Consortium of Intelligent Medical Imaging, and GE Healthcare and Perspectum Diagnostics, to improve the availability of MRI scanners with LiverMultiScan and automated image processing to identify NHS patients with iron overload.

“Haemochromatosis is a chronic genetic iron overload condition that can be fatal if undetected and untreated. Haemochromatosis UK (HUK) is delighted to see that new and non-invasive ways of detecting iron overload are breaking through and beginning to make a positive difference to the burden on the public at risk and the NHS.  Perspectum’s BioBank study supports what we at HUK have long believed to be true; there are potentially many people across the UK with iron overload which is currently undetected, may be caused by haemochromatosis, and is likely to be negatively impacting quality of life. The potential that LiverMultiScan has to offer these people cannot be underestimated; a more accurate diagnosis, the avoidance of invasive testing and a quicker route to treatment so they can begin to manage their iron overload rather than being totally unaware that it could be the cause of a series of underlying health problems.” Corrina Towers, Chair, Haemochromatosis UK

Read the full paper from PLOS ONE here.

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