Effects of iron overload on the immune system

Ann Clin Lab Sci. 2000 Oct;30(4):354-65.


Iron and its binding proteins have immunoregulatory properties, and shifting of immunoregulatory balances by iron excess or deficiency may produce severe, deleterious physiological effects. Effects of iron overload include decreased antibody-mediated and mitogen-stimulated phagocytosis by monocytes and macrophages, alterations in T-lymphocyte subsets, and modification of lymphocyte distribution in different compartments of the immune system. The importance of iron in regulating the expression of T-lymphocyte cell surface markers, influencing the expansion of different T-cell subsets, and affecting immune cell functions can be demonstrated in vitro and in vivo. The poor ability of lymphocytes to sequester excess iron in ferritin may help to explain the immune system abnormalities in iron-overloaded patients. Iron overload as seen in hereditary hemochromatosis patients enhances suppressor T-cell (CD8) numbers and activity, decreases the proliferative capacity, numbers, and activity of helper T cells (CD4) with increases in CD8/CD4 ratios, impairs the generation of cytotoxic T cells, and alters immunoglobulin secretion when compared to treated hereditary hemochromatosis patients or controls. A correlation has recently been found between low CD8+ lymphocyte numbers, liver damage associated with HCV positivity, and severity of iron overload in beta-thalassemia major patients. Iron overload, with its associated increases of serum iron levels and transferrin saturation, may cause a poor response to interferon therapy. Iron overload with hyperferremia is associated with suppressed functions of the complement system (classic or alternative types). High plasma ferritin content in patients with chronic, diffuse diseases of the liver (cirrhosis, chronic hepatitis), beta-thalassemia major, dyserythropoiesis, and hereditary hemochromatosis may induce the development of anti-ferritin antibodies with the production of circulating immune complexes. Increased body stores of iron in various clinical situations may tip the immunoregulatory balance unfavorably to allow increased growth rates of cancer cells and infectious organisms, and complicate the clinical management of preexisting acute and chronic diseases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism*
  • Hemochromatosis / immunology*
  • Hemochromatosis / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immune System / immunology
  • Immune System / metabolism*
  • Phagocytosis / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*