Hereditary hemochromatosis: etiologic, pathologic, and clinical aspects

Semin Hematol. 1998 Jan;35(1):55-71.


The human leukocyte antigen (HLA)-linked iron-loading gene (HFE) associated with the autosomal recessive disorder known as hereditary hemochromatosis occurs in about 10% of subjects of European descent, most of whom are unaffected heterozygotes. In contrast, the 3 to 5 per 1,000 who are homozygotes are at risk of developing severe and potentially lethal iron overload, with damage to a number of organs, including the liver, pancreas, heart, joints, and the endocrine glands. Although the removal of the excess iron by repeated venesections is simple, effective, and safe therapy, much of the organ damage, once it has occurred, is irreversible. Because symptoms are often nonspecific, it is important for physicians in the relevant specialties to develop a high index of suspicion and to apply widely the appropriate screening tests, including transferrin saturation and serum ferritin concentration. Equally important is the detection of affected family members, who are usually siblings, before they have developed significant iron overload. In addition, screening of populations in which the prevalence of hereditary hemochromatosis is high has become an attractive and cost-effective option, especially now that the molecular structure of the HFE gene has been defined. Using this approach it is now possible to detect individuals homozygous or heterozygous for the gene using a simple polymerase chain reaction-based test. The application of this exciting new tool promises to provide fresh insights into the range of phenotypic expression in hereditary hemochromatosis. A challenge for the future will be to define the genetic or environmental factors responsible for iron overload in up to 20% of patients with clinical hemochromatosis who do not have the HFE gene.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Family Health
  • Hemochromatosis / diagnosis*
  • Hemochromatosis / genetics*
  • Humans