Regulating iron in the blood for optimal health – Q&A with Rick Eisenstein

Iron is an essential nutrient to human life, the element by which we regenerative red blood cells. Too little iron can cause serious problems such as anemia. But too much can be toxic, potentially causing blood clotting. Rick Eisenstein studies iron metabolism, with the goal of helping humans achieve the optimal balance for health.

This is a featured lab as part of the Metabolism Initiative.

What is your metabolism research focus?

Iron is a nutrient that’s essential for nearly all forms of life. We need iron to create red blood cells in our bodies and to allow proper function of all tissues, including brain and muscle.

Inappropriate levels of red blood cells are noticed in anemia, which can be caused by dietary insufficiency of iron and other factors. An excess of red blood cells can be dangerous and is noted in disease states like polycythemia or when athletes illegally take drugs to increase red blood cell production. The idea is to absorb more oxygen and boost performance.

This is a dangerous game, because iron – and the red blood cells they create – need to be finely balanced. Too few means iron deficiency and we get anemic, unable to transport enough oxygen through our bodies. Too many, and blood gets too thick to flow well and could clot, possibly causing a stroke.

I study the regulation of iron metabolism and how it is integrated with red blood cell formation, the major use of iron in the body.

What is the importance of iron to human health?

Iron is useful because it’s chemically reactive and that’s why it can help processes in the body work, such as cell respiration that converts the energy in nutrients into forms used by the cell for many processes need to cell maintenance or growth. At the same time, the chemical reactivity can be toxic if there’s too much iron around, because that can lead to cellular damage. Iron overload caused by acute toxicity due to ingestion of excess amounts of iron supplements or due to genetic defects that cause the body to be too efficient at absorbing iron from the diet are important issues of public health.

Humans and other mammals use a number of specific proteins to promote the safe transport, uptake, and storage of iron. The protein in red blood cells that contains iron is called hemoglobin, and this is where two-thirds of the iron in our bodies comes from.

We work on regulatory proteins that sense the iron status of cells in our body and regulate the uptake and safe use of iron. These regulatory proteins also help make sure that iron availability is appropriately matched to the need for making new red cells. We found that one of the proteins we work with, when it’s not present in animals, can lead to a very strong overproduction of red blood cells.

Where did your research interests originate?

My family gave me the combination of exposure to science research and interest in nature that made be comfortable in biology. I’m the youngest of five, including two physicists, one epidemiologist, and one in health care. My dad was a physician scientist, and when we were young, we helped out in his lab. I also like to garden a lot and to enjoy nature, I learned that from my mom. I was a double major in college, history and biology, and I was probably a sophomore when I decided how much I was excited by my classes in biochemistry and molecular biology.

I’m a detail person. I love gnawing at problems and figuring out how things work, but I’ve also learned the importance of thinking of the whole organism, taking a take a step back and relating it to the big picture. That’s an advantage of being in a nutrition department.

What is a ‘dream outcome’ of your research?

Our work aims to identify new ways to coordinate iron metabolism and red blood cell production. In the long term, we hope it will help us prevent or treat polycythemia, which is a condition where too many red blood cells are produced. We are also interested in finding ways to more naturally stimulate red blood cell production in renal failure, a very common problem. We believe the regulatory protein we work on is a contributor to maintaining iron metabolism within a window that assists in the maintenance of optimal health.

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