A hepatic iron concentration above 10,000 mcg/g dry weight is diagnostic for hemochromatosis.
Hepatic iron concentrations above 3,000 mcg/g are seen when there is iron overload without cellular injury and cirrhosis. Hepatic iron concentrations greater than the reference range are associated with hemosiderosis, thalassemia, and sideroblastic anemia. Some patients with hepatitis or cirrhosis without significant fibrosis will have hepatic iron concentrations at the top end of normal or just slightly above the normal range.
Iron accumulates in the liver normally with aging. The hepatic iron index (HII) normalizes hepatic iron concentration for age. The HII is calculated from the hepatic iron concentration by converting the concentration from mcg/g to mcmol/g dry weight and dividing by years of age. The normal range for HII is less than 1.0.
-Patients with homozygous hemochromatosis have an HII above 1.9.
-Patients with heterozygous hemochromatosis often have an HII ranging from 1.0 to 1.9.
-Patients with hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis usually have an HII below 1.0, although a small percentage of patients with alcoholic cirrhosis have an HII in the range of 1.0 to 1.9.
-Patients with hemochromatosis who have been successfully treated with phlebotomy will have an HII below 1.0.
Liver specimens collected from patients with cirrhosis containing a high degree of fibrosis have results near the low end of the reference range, even though they will show significant iron staining in hepatocytes. While it is true that iron accumulates in hepatocytes in advanced alcoholic cirrhosis with fibrosis, there are relatively few hepatocytes compared to other inert (fibrotic) tissue, so the quantitative iron determination, which is expressed as mcg of iron per gram of dry weight tissues, yields a low result. Histologic examination of all tissue specimens should be performed to facilitate correct interpretation. When structural heterogeneity is apparent histologically, variation in measured iron should be anticipated. We have observed, in approximately 2% of cases, a high degree of hepatic heterogeneity that makes quantitation highly variable.