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University of Westminster’s collaborative research shows that 4.8 per cent of UK Population have elevated liver iron

Biosciences 3 January 2019

Louise Thomas and Jimmy Bell

Dr Louise Thomas and Professor Jimmy Bell’s new collaborative research with Perspectum Diagnostics reveals a prevalence of iron overload in UK Biobank population.

The study, published on 21 December in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, assessed the combined burden of fatty liver and elevated liver iron levels within 8865 UK Biobank participants. Researchers used the quantitative Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technique behind LiverMultiScan to provide a non-invasive assessment of the liver iron.

The data showed that over 20 per cent of this population have excess fat in their livers and 4.8 per cent have elevated liver iron levels, with 1.3 per cent having elevated levels of both fat and iron.

It also demonstrated that the numbers of individuals with potential abnormal levels for two key risk factors of significant liver disease could be considerable and could potentially represent two million NHS patients.

Iron overload is traditionally associated with genetic disorders such as hereditary haemochromatosis (HH) or as a results of repeated blood transfusions. However, elevated levels of liver iron are now often associated with metabolic diseases including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and NAFLD. Elevated liver iron is associated with the development of fibrosis and cirrhosis and thought to be involved in the progression from fibrosis to liver cancer.   

The study also showed the need for the development of robust, widely available and non-invasive techniques, such as the LiverMultiScan, in order to provide patients with a more accurate and quicker diagnosis while avoiding an invasive testing.

Corrina Towers, Chair of Haemochromatosis UK, said about the research: “Perspectum’s Biobank study supports what we at HUK have long believed to be true. There are potentially many people across the UK with iron overload which is currently undetected, may be caused by haemochromatosis, and is likely to be negatively impacting quality of life.

“The potential that LiverMultiScan has to offer these people cannot be underestimated; a more accurate diagnosis, the avoidance of invasive testing and a quicker route to treatment so they can begin to manage their iron overload rather than being totally unaware that it could be the cause of a series of underlying health problems.”

One of the researchers, Dr Louise Thomas, from the University of Westminster’s Research Centre of Optimal Health, also commented on the research: “At the heart of this work is the multidisciplinary collaboration between academics, industry and the UK Biobank, showing the value of Big Data in the study of health and disease.”

Read the full paper on PLOS ONE.

Find out more about the Research Centre of Optimal Health at the University of Westminster.

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