Elevated iron levels have been associated with raised serum alanine transaminase (ALT) levels in hepatitis C virus (HCV)-infected humans. However, it is not clear if HCV infection causes increased iron accumulation by the liver or if the severity of HCV infection is actually worsened by higher iron levels in the host. To better understand the relationship between iron and persistent HCV infections, we examined the effect of excess dietary iron on disease severity in HCV-infected chimpanzees. Iron was supplemented in the diets of four HCV-infected and two uninfected chimpanzees for 29 weeks to achieve iron loading. Iron loading was confirmed by increases in serum iron levels, percentages of transferrin saturation, ferritin levels, elevations in hepatic iron concentration (HIC), and by histological examination. The majority of HCV-infected chimpanzees had higher iron levels before iron feeding than the uninfected animals. Although various degrees of iron loading occurred in all chimpanzees, HCV-infected animals exhibited increased loading in comparison with uninfected animals. The effects of iron loading on HCV disease expression was determined by comparing disease parameters during an extended baseline period before iron loading with the period during iron loading and immediately following iron loading. Iron loading did not influence the viral load, but did exacerbate liver injury in HCV-infected chimpanzees, as evidenced by elevated ALT and histological changes. Because all chimpanzees on high iron diets experienced iron loading, but pathological effects were only observed in HCV-infected chimpanzees, HCV infection appears to increase the susceptibility of the liver to injury following iron loading. These results confirm and extend previous observations made in human populations and serve to further validate the chimpanzee model of chronic hepatitis C.
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