Background/aims: Determination of hepatic iron concentration is crucial in the evaluation of iron-storage disease. Iron content is normally determined in a part of a needle liver biopsy and the value obtained is considered to be representative of the iron concentration in the whole liver. To evaluate the reliability of this procedure, we studied iron distribution in the liver of two beta-thalassemic patients. Since the transport of intracellular iron is mediated by phosphates, we also studied the hepatic phosphorus distribution.
Methods: At autopsy, a liver slice extending from the left to the right lobe was divided into 51 and 49 samples, respectively. Each specimen was subdivided into two parts: one of them was paraffin-embedded and utilized for the histochemical detection of iron; the second part was analyzed for iron and phosphorus content by induced coupled plasma atomic emission spectroscopy.
Results: The histological picture of both livers was characterized by portal and periportal fibrosis associated with iron storage of different degree, without cirrhosis. The mean iron concentration of the liver was 20,631 +/- 4903 micrograms per g of dry tissue (micrograms/g dt) and 13,901 +/- 1976 micrograms/g dt, respectively. A striking variability in iron content between samples was also found: iron concentration ranged from 11,537 to 32,347 micrograms/g dt in the first case and from 6257 to 16,493 in the second case. We even observed regional differences in iron concentration, with a preferential peripheral accumulation in both cases and a tendency of the left compartment of the liver to accumulate more iron in the first case. Histochemical analyses confirmed the uneven iron distribution even at the acinar level, showing iron mainly being stored in hepatocytes and Kupffer cells of zone 1 of the acinus, with decreasing amounts of iron in zones 2 and 3. The mean hepatic phosphorus concentration was 6662 +/- 1300 micrograms/g dt (range: 4348-9947) and 7502 +/- 986 micrograms/g dt (range: 5844-90,282), respectively. The regional distribution of phosphorus was similar to that observed for iron. A strict correlation between iron and phosphorus content was also observed.
Conclusions: Our data show that: 1) iron and phosphorus are unevenly distributed in the beta-thalassemic liver, even in the non-cirrhotic stages; 2) a regional pattern of iron and phosphorus distribution is evident, characterized by higher concentrations at the periphery of the liver; 3) the observed uneven distribution of iron and phosphorus implies that their content determined in a small liver sample cannot be considered as absolutely representative of the mean hepatic iron concentration. Therefore, iron concentrations determined in a part of a needle liver biopsy should be interpreted with caution in monitoring the efficacy of the iron-chelating therapy in beta-thalassemic patients.