Oral drug offers new hope to anaemics

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 March, 2006, 12:00am

An oral medicine to remove excess iron from thalassemia patients works better than an older, injectable drug, offering hope to many patients, researchers said yesterday.

Thalassemias are a group of anaemia-like blood disorders that occur most commonly in Asians, African-Americans and people of a Mediterranean background. These conditions can range from mild to life threatening.

About 350 to 400 people suffer from severe thalassemia, or inherited anaemia, in Hong Kong. They need regular blood transfusions, which result in a build-up of toxic iron throughout the body, including the heart, liver and endocrine gland.

Excessive iron in the heart can lead to cardiac failure, which strikes 70 per cent of patients in their 40s.

In the study, 14 patients were given the new oral drug, deferiprone, or the injectable deferoxamine. Patients were scanned by new magnetic resonance imaging software in Hong Kong to assess iron levels in their heart, then flown to England for repeat scanning to ensure results were accurate.

It showed that if you use deferoxamine for one year, the amount of iron in the heart fell slightly, said Dudley Pennell, professor of cardiology at Imperial College and Royal Brompton Hospital in London.

When deferiprone was used there was a much greater drop in these levels. 'This is the first randomised control trial evidence showing that the amount of iron in the heart is substantially improved using this new drug,' Professor Pennell said.

Au Wing-yan, honorary clinical associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, said: 'Several studies in Italy have shown that adding the oral drug can reduce the incidence of cardiac failure to zero.'

The treatment is life-long. The oral medicine, available in Hong Kong since 2002, costs from $2,500 to $3,000 a month, while the injectable medicine costs $2,000 a month.