Rare causes of hereditary iron overload

Semin Hematol. 2002 Oct;39(4):249-62. doi: 10.1053/shem.2002.35638.


Iron is a vitally important element in mammalian metabolism because of its unsurpassed versatility as a biologic catalyst. However, when not appropriately shielded or when present in excess, iron plays a key role in the formation of extremely toxic oxygen radicals, which ultimately cause peroxidative damage to vital cell structures. Organisms are equipped with specific proteins designed for iron acquisition, export, transport, and storage as well as with sophisticated mechanisms that maintain the intracellular labile iron pool at an appropriate level. These systems normally tightly control iron homeostasis but their failure can lead to iron deficiency or iron overload and their clinical consequences. This review describes several rare iron loading conditions caused by genetic defects in some of the proteins involved in iron metabolism. A dramatic decrease in the synthesis of the plasma iron transport protein, transferrin, leads to a massive accumulation of iron in nonhematopoietic tissues but virtually no iron is available for erythropoiesis. Humans and mice with hypotransferrinemia have a remarkably similar phenotype. Homozygous defects in a recently identified gene encoding transferrin receptor 2 lead to iron overload (hemochromatosis type 3) with symptoms similar to those seen in patients with HFE-associated hereditary hemochromatosis (hemochromatosis type 1). Transferrin receptor 2 is primarily expressed in the liver but it is unclear how mutant forms cause iron overload. Mutations in the gene encoding the iron exporter, ferroportin 1, cause iron overload characterized by iron accumulation in macrophages yet normal plasma iron levels. Plasma iron, together with dominant inheritance, discriminates iron overload due to ferroportin mutations (hemochromatosis type 4) from hemochromatosis type 1. Heme oxygenase 1 is essential for the catabolism of heme and in the recycling of hemoglobin iron in macrophages. Homozygous heme oxygenase 1 deletion in mice leads to a paradoxical accumulation of nonheme iron in macrophages, hepatocytes, and many other cells and is associated with low plasma iron levels, anemia, endothelial cell damage, and decreased resistance to oxidative stress. A similar phenotype occurred in a child with severe heme oxygenase 1 deficiency. Recently, a mutation in the L-subunit of ferritin has been described that causes the formation of aberrant L-ferritin with an altered C-terminus. Individuals with this mutation in one allele of L-ferritin have abnormal aggregates of ferritin and iron in the brain, primarily in the globus pallidus. Patients with this dominantly inherited late-onset disease present with symptoms of extrapyramidal dysfunction. Mice with a targeted disruption of a gene for iron regulatory protein 2 (IRP2), a translational repressor of ferritin, misregulate iron metabolism in the intestinal mucosa and the central nervous system. Significant amounts of ferritin and iron accumulate in white matter tracts and nuclei, and adult IRP2-deficient mice develop a movement disorder consisting of ataxia, bradykinesia, and tremor. Mutations in the frataxin gene are responsible for Friedreich ataxia, the most common of the inherited ataxias. Frataxin appears to regulate mitochondrial iron (or iron-sulfur cluster) export and the neurologic and cardiac manifestations of Friedreich ataxia are due to iron-mediated mitochondrial toxicity. Finally, patients with Hallervorden-Spatz syndrome, an autosomal recessive, progressive neurodegenerative disorder, have mutations in a novel pantothenate kinase gene (PANK2). The cardinal feature of this extrapyramidal disease is pathologic iron accumulation in the globus pallidus. The defect in PANK2 is predicted to cause the accumulation of cysteine, which binds iron and causes oxidative stress in the iron-rich globus pallidus.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Family Health
  • Hemochromatosis / classification
  • Hemochromatosis / etiology
  • Hemochromatosis / genetics
  • Heredodegenerative Disorders, Nervous System / etiology
  • Heredodegenerative Disorders, Nervous System / genetics
  • Humans
  • Iron Overload / etiology
  • Iron Overload / genetics*
  • Iron-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Iron-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Metal Metabolism, Inborn Errors / etiology
  • Metal Metabolism, Inborn Errors / genetics
  • Mutation
  • Receptors, Transferrin / deficiency
  • Receptors, Transferrin / genetics
  • Receptors, Transferrin / metabolism


  • Iron-Binding Proteins
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • TFR2 protein, human