BACKGROUND. Iron overload is the primary cause of morbidity in transfusion-dependent thalassemia. Increase in iron causes mitochondrial dysfunction under experimental conditions, but the occurrence and significance of mitochondrial damage is not understood in patients with thalassemia.
METHODS. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to nuclear DNA copy number (Mt/N) and frequency of the common 4977-bp mitochondrial deletion (ΔmtDNA4977) were quantified using a quantitative PCR assay on whole blood samples from 38 subjects with thalassemia who were receiving regular transfusions.
RESULTS. Compared with healthy controls, Mt/N and ΔmtDNA4977 frequency were elevated in thalassemia (P = 0.038 and P < 0.001, respectively). ΔmtDNA4977 was increased in the presence of either liver iron concentration > 15 mg/g dry-weight or splenectomy, with the highest levels observed in subjects who had both risk factors (P = 0.003). Myocardial iron (MRI T2* < 20 ms) was present in 0%, 22%, and 46% of subjects with ΔmtDNA4977 frequency < 20, 20–40, and > 40/1 × 107 mtDNA, respectively (P = 0.025). Subjects with Mt/N values below the group median had significantly lower Matsuda insulin sensitivity index (5.76 ± 0.53) compared with the high Mt/N group (9.11 ± 0.95, P = 0.008).
CONCLUSION. Individuals with transfusion-dependent thalassemia demonstrate age-related increase in mtDNA damage in leukocytes. These changes are markedly amplified by splenectomy and are associated with extrahepatic iron deposition. Elevated mtDNA damage in blood cells may predict the risk of iron-associated organ damage in thalassemia.
FUNDING. This project was supported by Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland Institutional Research Award and by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NIH, through UCSF-CTSI grant UL1 TR000004.