GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida research has helped uncover a potential treatment for the type of anemia that commonly exacerbates chronic illnesses such as cancer and AIDS.
In a study published in the April issue of Nature Genetics, researchers describe how a protein typically associated with good joint health could help counter one of the body’s defenses gone awry.
Iron is essential to the biomolecular mechanics of cell division, and bacterial infections need it in copious amounts to spread. As a natural antibiotic control system, the human body restricts iron distribution when tissues are inflamed or irritated.
Iron is also needed to produce hemoglobin with which the blood carries oxygen. During long illnesses that trigger this defense mechanism, hemoglobin production drops — choking off oxygen and further weakening already damaged bodies.
This leads to a condition known as anemia of chronic disease. Unlike anemia brought on by a lack of dietary iron, genetic conditions or bleeding, this type of anemia can only be treated by alleviating its root cause.
In cases involving intractable conditions such as AIDS, that’s often impossible.
However, with the analytical help of UF researcher Mitch Knutson, scientists at Harvard Medical School found that a compound called bone morphogenetic protein 6 (BMP6) interferes with the regulatory hormone hepcidin to release pent-up iron.
“As modern medicine improves and we continue to live longer, it means that the number of people living with long-term illnesses that are difficult to cure is skyrocketing,” said Knutson, an iron metabolism expert at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Right now, the only way to get rid of the anemia that makes these conditions worse is to get rid of the disease that’s the problem in the first place. If you can sidestep that, you could make a lot of people better in a significant way.”
Research has thus far been confined to mice and test-tube samples. But the researchers predict that treatment for humans could ultimately take the easy-to-administer form of an injection.
The work also lends insight to a condition known as juvenile hemochromatosis, a genetic disease sometimes called “iron overload,” in which iron accumulates in the liver, heart, joints and brain. The damage often leads to diabetes and arthritis.
“Iron is essential for life, but too much or too little of this element is deadly,” said Billy Andriopoulos Jr., a researcher at Harvard Medical School. “Understanding how our body maintains a safe balance is complicated, which is why it’s a good thing that researchers like Mitch contribute to the effort.”
Scientists from the University Hospital of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Modena, Italy, and the University of Zagreb in Croatia also contributed.