Background/aims: Little is known about the pathogenesis of liver damage related to hepatitis C virus. The presence of steatosis or increased ferritin levels, and preliminary data on the relevance of iron as a prognostic factor prompted us to ascertain whether hepatitis C virus-related liver damage might be mediated by iron accumulation.
Methods: We evaluated the degree of hepatic inflammation and steatosis, serum ferritin, transferrin saturation and iron levels, tissue iron concentrations and iron index, liver glutathione and malondialdehyde in 33 males and 20 females with chronic hepatitis C virus- or hepatitis B virus-related hepatitis (42 + 11). We also considered six patients with both alcohol abuse and hepatitis C virus, four males with chronic alcoholic liver disease and four males with genetic hemochromatosis, giving a total of 67. All diagnoses were histologically confirmed. Patients with cirrhosis were excluded.
Results: Our data show that: 1. Steatosis is more frequent in hepatitis C virus and hepatitis C virus+alcohol abuse patients; 2. In males, serum ferritin and tissue iron are significantly higher in hepatitis C virus- than in hepatitis B virus-positive patients (p < 0.01 and 0.05); transferrin saturation is higher (p < 0.05) in hepatitis C virus-positive than in hepatitis B virus-positive patients only when males and females are considered together; 3. Serum ferritin and transferrin saturation only correlate with liver iron (r = 0.833 and r = 0.695, respectively, p = 0.00001); tissue iron is significantly higher in hepatitis C virus- than in hepatitis B virus-positive patients (p < 0.05); 4. In patients with chronic hepatitis, serum ferritin is a better marker of liver iron storage than transferrin saturation, both in males and in females; 5. Hepatitis C virus-positive patients have higher malondialdehyde levels and activation of turnover of glutathione, probably in response to free-radical-mediated liver damage. Females have lower liver iron levels but similar trends.
Conclusions: These findings suggest that hepatitis C virus-related liver damage is characterized by increased iron storage (possibly induced by the virus) which elicits a free-radical-mediated peroxidation, with consequent steatosis and activation of glutathione turnover.