BackgroundAbsolute iron deficiency, irrespective of aetiology, remains a major and worldwide cause of morbidity. After correction of the causative lesion, reconstitution of haemoglobin level and body iron stores is traditionally achieved with oral administration of ferrous salts. The latter have significant gastrointestinal tract side-effects that, in the short-term, may impair compliance. With protracted administration these products can cause lipid peroxidation which, in turn, may accelerate atherogenesis. An alternative formulation is an iron polymaltose complex where animal data supported a promoting effect of glycerophosphate. Setting and Trial Design This was a single-centre, open, randomised, multidose four treatment parallel group study. A standard dose of ferric polymaltose complex with two differing levels of glycerophosphate was compared with an equivalent amount of iron supplied as ferrous sulphate in anaemic volunteer blood donors. The endpoints were rate of haemoglobin rise and re-expansion of body iron stores reflected in blood ferritin concentration, as well as percentage saturation of transferrin. Secondary observations were changes in the proportion of hypochromic red cells during the course of treatment, erythropoietin levels and tolerability of the two formulations. Results Outcome in the rat model suggested that the utilisation of iron from polymaltose might be enhanced by glycerophosphate. However, in donors this difference was not evident and, accordingly, the data from the three polymaltose groups combined and compared to those receiving ferrous sulphate. The rate at which haemoglobin level improved, red cell indices returned to normal, and the number of hypochromic and microcytic red cells fell was not significantly different between the groups. Similarly the serum iron, percentage saturation of transferrin and red cell ferritin were comparable. In contrast the serum ferritin levels were higher for those receiving ferrous sulphate. Additionally, side-effects were significantly more frequently encountered with the latter preparation. Conclusion These data demonstrate that the addition of glycerophosphate, observed to be beneficial in rats, did not occur in humans. Secondly, in the blood donors, equivalent amounts of iron provided as the polymaltose, with or without glycerophosphate or ferrous sulphate, corrected haemoglobin concentration and morphologically abnormal erythropoiesis at comparable rates. Similarly iron stores are replenished to an equivalent extent as seen in the matching percentage saturation of transferrin and red cell ferritin levels. Interestingly, there is a discrepancy in the serum ferritin which is higher with the salt and this may reflect oxidative stress. Thirdly, corresponding efficacy can be achieved with better patient tolerance for the complex. Finally it is postulated that the iron polymaltose complex formulation more closely approximates the way in which enterocytes handle dietary iron and thus physiologic regulatory mechanisms would be expected to reciprocally slow down absorption as stores expand. Logically, therefore and, if confirmed, the latter finding suggests that this formulation may have a potential role in longer-term supplementation programmes.