January 14, 2005

Iron Deficiency Sends Cells Into Tailspin

Forces them to conserve energy by reducing activity of 80 key genes, researchers find

HealthDayNews -- Iron deficiency forces cells to preserve what little iron they have and to maintain essential functions by dramatically reducing the activity of more than 80 different genes.

That's the conclusion of a Duke University Medical Center study in the Jan. 14 issue of Cell.

"We discovered that iron deprivation actually reprograms the metabolism of the entire cell. Literally hundreds of proteins require iron to carry out their proper function, so without this nutrient, there is a complete reorganization of how cellular processes occur," researcher Dennis J. Thiele, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, said in a prepared statement.

Some of the genes affected by iron deficiency are known to play important roles in generating energy, aging, protecting the cell from free radicals and copying the cell's genetic code. But the function of many of the affected genes is unknown, meaning that some side effects caused by iron deficiency may go unrecognized.

The Duke team conducted its research in yeast cells. The findings may help in the diagnosis and treatment of health problems caused by iron deficiency, the researchers said.

Iron deficiency affects more than 2 billion people, and is the most common and severe nutritional disorder worldwide. Anemia is the most widely recognized symptom of iron deficiency. Other symptoms include fatigue, weakness, cognitive problems, heart complications and developmental disorders.

Iron is found in red meats, dried fruits, shellfish, spinach, whole grains, seeds and a number of other foods.

More information

Duke University Medical Center

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more about iron.