17 June 2019
Iron is by mass the most common element on Earth. It is also an essential element in our body, with one of its major functions to carry oxygen in haemoglobin molecules of red blood cells.
Now, in an attempt to make your head spin, there are four iron atoms per haemoglobin molecule, around 270 million haemoglobin molecules per red blood cell and at any time, 20-30 trillion red blood cells in your body. One may think that all this iron is at least one of the reasons for tipping the scale in the morning, but astonishingly, we only have 3.5 to 4 grams in our bodies; about the weight of a penny!
Just as too little iron causes health issues such as anaemia, like most things, so does too much. Too much iron produces free radicals, causing havoc in our bodies and it’s the reason we need antioxidants in our diet. One may think, like with salt for example, if we have too much, the body will simply excrete it. Unfortunately, this is not the case with iron. Once the body absorbs iron from the gastrointestinal tract or gut after eating, you are pretty much stuck with it.
The control of iron absorption from the gut is therefore tightly regulated to prevent so-called iron loading by setting up a barrier in the wall of the gut. If you have enough iron in your body, the barrier prevents further absorption, but if your body iron level is low, the barrier will allow more through. The controller of this barrier is a hormone called hepcidin which the liver produces.
Besides running the risk of falling into a deep sleep by reading this, why is iron a double edged sword? Well, it’s not, unless you drink alcohol. Alcohol inhibits hepcidin production and therefore the barrier lets iron through, irrespective of the level of iron in your body and starts building up and produce free radicals.
This is what my research is all about and I’m currently investigating the hypothesis that, as a general population, we are loading ourselves with iron through excessive alcohol consumption which contributes, at least in part, to chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
As a scientist and academic, my research feeds into my teaching and I enjoy sharing results and thoughts with my students. Importantly, becoming a scientist gave me the tools to investigate research topics like these and make a contribution to population health. It’s hard to hide my enthusiasm and at times I also corner my colleagues with my latest ideas and findings. Curiosity in science is key, and mine always gets the better of me, always seeking answers to research questions that present themselves. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also creates scientists!
By Rudolph Schutte, Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for BSc (Hons) Medical Science