Erythropoietin hyporesponsiveness: from iron deficiency to iron overload

Kidney Int Suppl. 1999 Mar;69:S107-18.


Iron deficiency is the most frequently encountered cause of suboptimal response to recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO). Carefully assessing iron status is of paramount importance in chronic renal failure patients prior to or during rHuEPO therapy. Because there is great need for iron in the EPO-stimulated erythroid progenitors, it is essential that serum ferritin and transferrin saturation levels should be maintained over 300 microg/liter and 30%, respectively. Investigators have shown that oral iron is unlikely to keep pace with the iron demand for an optimal rHuEPO response in uremics. Therefore, patients with iron deficiency will always require intravenous iron therapy. The early and prompt iron supplementation can lead to reductions in rHuEPO dose and hence cost. After the iron deficiency has been corrected or excluded, we must remember all of the possible causes of hyporesponsiveness in every rHuEPO-treated patient. As dose requirements vary, it is not clear which dose of rHuEPO causes this hyporesponsiveness. However, if the patient with iron repletion does not respond well after the induction period, the major causes blunting the response to rHuEPO should be investigated. Most factors are reversible and remediable, except resistant anemia associated with hemoglobinopathy or bone marrow fibrosis, which requires a further increase in the rHuEPO dose. By means of early detection and correction of the possible causes, the goal of increasing therapeutic efficacy can be achieved. Iron overload may lead to an enhanced risk for infection, cardiovascular complication, and cancer. Over-treatment with iron should be avoided in dialysis patients, despite the fact that the safe upper limit of serum ferritin to avoid iron overload is not clearly defined. On the other hand, functional iron deficiency may develop even when serum ferritin levels are increased. Controversy remains as to whether intravenous iron therapy can overcome this form of hyporesponsiveness in iron-overloaded patients. Moreover, a treatment option of iron supplementation is not warranted in these patients, as the potential hazards of iron overload will be worsened. We demonstrated that the mean hematocrit significantly increased from 25.1+/-0.9% to 31+/-1.2% after eight weeks of intravenous ascorbate therapy (300 mg three times a week) in 12 hemodialysis patients with serum ferritin levels of more than 500 microg/liter. The enhanced erythropoiesis paralleled with a rise in transferrin saturation (27.8+/-2.5% vs. 44.8+/-9.5%, P < 0.05) and reductions in erythrocyte zinc protoporphyrin (130+/-32 vs. 72+/-19 micromol/mol heme, P < 0.05) and monthly rHuEPO dose (24.2+/-4.5 vs. 16.8+/-3.4 x 10(3) units, P < 0.05) at the end of study. It is speculated that ascorbate supplementation not only facilitates the iron release from storage sites and its delivery to hematopoietic tissues, but also increases iron utilization in erythroid cells. Our study provides a more complete understanding of the pathogenesis of iron overload-related anemia and the development of an adjuvant therapy, intravenous ascorbic acid, to the existing treatments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aluminum / toxicity
  • Anemia / blood
  • Anemia / drug therapy
  • Anemia / etiology
  • Erythropoietin / therapeutic use*
  • Hemoglobinopathies / complications
  • Hemolysis
  • Humans
  • Infections / complications
  • Inflammation / complications
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Iron Deficiencies*
  • Iron Overload / etiology*
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / blood
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / complications
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Thalassemia / complications


  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Erythropoietin
  • Aluminum
  • Iron