15 February 2017
Lack of iron, and its associated anaemia, is the largest nutritional deficiency disorder in the world today, affecting 2 billion people. In developing countries, where bland diets contain too little iron and infectious the global burden of iron deficiency anaemia hasn’t changed in the past 20 years, diseases reduce iron absorption, at least half of all pregnant women and pre-school children are projected to be anaemic.
In countries where more than 1 in 5 young children have anaemia, iron compounds are included in a powdered mix of vitamins and minerals made freely and widely available by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank and non-governmental organisation (NGOs). Despite considerable public health efforts, the most widespread nutritional deficiency remains without an effective cure.
Nearly 12 years ago Dr Dora Pereira, now a Principal Investigator with the MRC Unit The Gambia, and colleagues at the MRC Human Nutrition Unit in Cambridge questioned whether the right type of iron was being used to treat anaemia. “If you look at our diet, we obtain iron from red meat, pulses, whole grains and leafy greens, and in all of these food the iron is found in a less ‘accessible’ form than the soluble iron currently used in supplements,” says Pereira.
Dr Pereira, sometimes referred to as ‘The Iron Lady’ is leading the clinical trial with Iron Hydroxide Adipate Tartrate (IHAT). The study, being conducted in 700 children in The Gambia, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health programme. The trial is done in collaboration with the MRC Unit in The Gambia and is co-led by Professor Andrew Prentice (MRCG, Nutrition Theme Leader), an expert at conducting oral iron intervention studies in rural Gambia.
Existing evidence strongly supports the contention that IHAT offers very important advantages over any other form of supplemental iron in use or under development. Now on Phase II, Pereira hopes that the IHAT supplement might provide the solution to what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called ‘a public health condition of epidemic proportions’.
Keeping an eye on the costs of IHAT has been crucial – if the clinical trials are successful, then the researchers need to be sure that the end product will be affordable and can be made in large quantities. Their current financial projections suggest that a month-long supply of a daily dose will cost around 1–2 Dollars.
Pereira’s team has been helped with thinking ahead to the marketplace through a mentorship programme with GSK (GlaxoSmithKline), which began after IHAT won the 2014 Emerging Technologies Prize from the UK Royal Society of Chemistry.
“If we are successful, then this would be a safer and a very simple solution with fewer side effects for anyone in the world who needs iron”.
Read more about her research on https://www.mrc.gm/efficacy-and-safety-iron-hydroxide-adipate-tartrate/ and on Research Horizons at http://www.cam.ac.uk/system/files/issue_32_research_horizons.pdf
Listen to the BBC interview with Dr Dora Pereira