Because clinical disorders of spontaneous iron overload have no experimental counterpart, we studied iron distribution (atomic absorption analysis) and intestinal absorption (59Fe) in mice with hereditary alpha-thalassemia. Mice heterozygous for a radiation-induced alpha-Hb gene deletion exhibit a mild hemolytic anemia, like the human condition, with microcytosis, reticulocytosis, splenomegaly, and chemical evidence of defective alpha-chain synthesis. Quantitative iron determination showed that total iron content in spleen, liver, and kidney, but not heart or lung, of adult alpha-thalassemic mice was greater (P less than .05) than that in unaffected littermates. Iron concentration was also increased in liver (P less than .001), spleen (P = .025), kidney (P = .058), and heart (P = .010); in general, the greater the iron concentration in liver, the greater that in spleen (r = .39, P = .009), kidney (r = .70, P less than .001), and heart (r = .46, P less than .001). In mice examined 8 months postoperatively, splenectomy, as compared to sham operation, significantly raised iron content in extrasplenic tissues, but did not affect total body iron. At 10–11 weeks of age, but no longer at 12–14 weeks, thalassemic mice showed higher rates of iron absorption than age-matched controls. Thus, alpha-thalassemic mice display an early occurring iron absorption defect, leading to a modest, sustained, nonprogressive iron overload, and thereby represent a valuable model for exploring disorders of iron homeostasis.

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