To better understand the pathophysiology of glucose intolerance secondary to iron overload in patients with thalassemia major, we performed tolbutamide-modified frequently sampled iv glucose tolerance tests (FSIGTs) in 10 thalassemic patients (6 males and 4 females; 21.7 +/- 1.2 yr old; body mass index, 19.7 +/- 0.6 kg/m2) and 10 healthy controls (5 males and 5 females; 22.4 +/- 1.3 yr; body mass index, 20.6 +/- 0.5 kg/m2). Insulin secretion and action were quantified by application of the minimal model of glucose kinetics and the combined model of insulin and C-peptide kinetics to the FSIGT data. The insulin sensitivity index was significantly lower in thalassemia patients [72 +/- 12 min-1(nmol/mL)] compared to controls [158 +/- 21 min-1(nmol/mL); P = 0.0026]. The integrated insulin response during the FSIGT was significantly greater in thalassemia patients than in controls after tolbutamide injection (P = 0.042). The difference in insulin levels was apparently due to reduced hepatic insulin extraction in thalassemia (78 +/- 2% vs. 68 +/- 3%; P = 0.0251). Seven of the 10 thalassemia patients were studied prospectively at 6-month intervals for 6-12 months. Repeated measures analysis of variance indicated that across a 6-month interval, there was a decrease in the total integrated insulin response (P = 0.002), with no change in insulin sensitivity (P = 0.86). In conclusion, patients with thalassemia major have significant insulin resistance, which may be compensated for by an elevated circulating insulin level. The elevated insulin level in response to tolbutamide appears to be due to reduced hepatic extraction of insulin and not to an enhanced insulin secretory response. Over time, patients with thalassemia experience a reduction in their circulating insulin levels. Persistent insulin resistance along with a progressive reduction in circulating insulin levels may lead to glucose intolerance and diabetes mellitus, which have a high prevalence in patients with thalassemia major.