Researchers have discovered that one in five people who suffer from chronic lung and respiratory conditions, such as COPD, have an iron deficiency. This may be causing worse symptoms for patients. About three million people in the UK have COPD and one dies every 20 minutes from the condition in England. People normally associate iron deficiency with anaemia but in fact iron is essential for many other processes in the human body and not just for making red blood cells.
Those with iron deficiency have much lower levels of oxygen in their blood, have greater difficulty exercising, require more supplemental oxygen therapy, suffer more frequent flare-ups and a worsening of shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.
The Oxford study revealed a surprisingly big difference in oxygen levels between those patients with low iron and those with normal iron levels. “The amount of oxygen in the blood is a strong predictor of life expectancy in COPD, so these findings are potentially very significant for patients.”
Currently smoking cessation and treatments that target the air passages in the lungs are the main treatments for COPD patients. However some patients are still left with troubling symptoms that interfere with their daily lives and lead to hospital admission. Iron deficiency works in multiple ways to worsen the impact of COPD, hopefully establishing a new treatment regime with iron could improve things for these patients.
Excessive iron build-up in the lungs could be a major cause of COPD. A gene has been found to make certain individuals more susceptible to the lung disease. This gene regulates iron uptake in cells and is called IRP2. In mice those that lacked the gene remained healthy and those with the gene were symptomatic for COPD. A drug given to these mice however prevented additional lung damage and even reversed COPD’s effects.
This study goes some way to prove that people may have a genetic predisposition to developing COPD. If this gene is expressed then there is an excessive build-up of iron in the cells, particularly in the mitochondria. Iron is needed by the cell but in a delicate balance and too much can cause haemochromatosis and leads to mitochondrial dysfunction and they cannot utilise oxygen effectively and cannot produce energy for the cell. This leads to inflammation and damage to the lung’s air sacs and cells in the airways. When mice in the study were given a drug ‘DFP’ this drug binds to excess iron and relocates it to other cells in the body that actually need it and in doing so prevented and reversed the lung inflammation. This drug is already approved to treat thalassaemia and therefore could quickly be incorporated into a new treatment regime for COPD patients.
Therefore too much iron could be the cause of COPD and too little iron could worsen the symptoms. If further studies continue to prove these findings then it could not be too long before COPD could become a more treatable and reversible condition.