OBJECTIVES: Antiviral treatment in chronic hepatitis C (CHC) involves ribavirin, a hemolytic agent. We planned a prospective study to evaluate whether drug-induced iron perturbation is clinically relevant as it relates to therapeutic outcome. METHODS: Iron variables were sequentially assessed in 206 CHC patients undergoing antiviral therapy and were correlated with pretreatment iron status and histology, hemolysis, and therapeutic outcome. RESULTS: At week 1 of therapy, serum iron (SI), transferrin saturation (TS), and serum ferritin (SF) increased markedly in all patients. All iron parameters correlated with hemolysis up to week 4; this correlation was lost for SF at later time points. SF rise during treatment was inversely related to baseline SF and iron deposits in hepatic mesenchymal/Kupffer cells. Both baseline SF and mesenchymal iron significantly correlated with fibrosis at multivariate analysis (P=0.015 and 0.008, respectively). Interestingly, baseline SF, despite good specificity (89%), had low sensitivity in predicting siderosis (25%). During therapy, SI, TS, and hemolysis parameters did not correlate with sustained virological response (SVR), whereas SF rise became an independent predictor of therapeutic response: a 2.5-fold increase of SF at week 12 associated with higher likelihood of SVR (odds ratio 1.91, P=0.032). Accordingly, lack of mesenchymal iron deposits at the baseline biopsy correlated with SVR (odds ratio 3.02, P=0.043). CONCLUSIONS: In CHC, SF is a useful marker for assessing disease duration and progression before starting treatment and for predicting therapeutic response while on therapy. SF rise during antiviral therapy is largely independent of hemolysis and likely indicates activation of macrophages in response to antivirals.
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