Men with genetic disorder hemochromatosis 10 times more likely to develop liver cancer: study

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A global study suggests that men with hemochromatosis — a genetic disorder that impacts one in 327 Canadians — are 10 times more likely to develop liver cancer than the general population.

The study was led by a team at the University of Exeter in the U.K. with collaboration from Western University in London, Ont., the University of Connecticut and South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust.

Read more: What is the ‘Celtic Curse’? Hemochromatosis explained

“More than seven per cent of men with two copies of the faulty haemochromatosis genes would develop liver cancer by age 75, compared to just 0.6 per cent in the general population,” researchers say.

As well, because of the way the condition progresses, in many cases, people don’t know they have it until they’re at least middle aged.

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Hemochromatosis is one of the most common genetic disorders in North America and involves the body holding on to excessive amounts of iron.

Normally, once the body’s needs have been met, the extra iron is excreted. In someone with hemochromatosis, this iron builds up slowly over time and can collect in tissues that aren’t meant to hold iron, like the liver, heart or pancreas.

Most people won’t develop symptoms until at least middle age and symptoms, which include feeling tired all the time as well as muscle weakness and joint paints, can often be misread as the signs of aging. Researchers say, once diagnosed, it can be “easily treated by a process similar to donating blood several times a year in order to lower iron levels.”

The results of the new study, published in the journal JAMA on Nov. 24, have researchers calling for routine early testing for the disorder, which was “previously thought to be a lower-level health risk.”

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Of the 1,294 men with the genetic condition whose data was used in the study, 21 have developed liver cancer so far and 10 of them did not know that they had hemochromatosis at the time of their liver cancer diagnosis. Fourteen of the 21 men have since died.

Read more: Annual Canadian Liver Foundation event goes virtual to raise funds for liver disease

In total, the cohort study included data from 451,186 people, including 2,890 men and women with hemochromatosis, through the UK Biobank — a large database of people from England, Scotland and Wales age 40 to 70 at the start of the study who were then followed for a nine-year period.

Researchers also found that the risk of all-cause death for men with the genetic condition was a “statistically significant” 19.5 per cent, compared to 15.1 per cent for men without pathogenic variants.

“There were no statistically significant associations for women,” researchers found.

The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council.

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— with files from Global News’ Leslie Young.


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