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Study finds new iron supplement may limit debilitating side effects

There is hope for women who experience iron deficiency in pregnancy with a world first study finding that a potential new iron supplement may reduce some of the debilitating side effects associated with existing treatments.

Iron deficiency is a common condition in pregnancy with up to two thirds of women needing supplements. If left untreated, it can lead to serious complications such as pre-eclampsia, premature birth, low birth weight babies, and long-term cognitive impairment in the infant.

QIMR Berghofer PHD student Sheridan Helman, who led the study, said the existing iron sulfate treatments can cause such severe side-effects that up to half of all pregnant women stop taking them.

“We found iron hydroxide adipate tartrate (IHAT) is a promising alternative to treat iron deficiency because it was just as safe and effective at boosting iron levels in pregnant mice as existing treatments, but with fewer adverse side effects,” Ms Helman said.

“If you speak with pregnant women who’ve had to take traditional supplements, they will tell you the side effects can be awful. Our goal is to help find a better alternative to treat their iron deficiency and anaemia without discomfort, ensuring the best health outcome for themselves and their babies.”

Side effects from taking large doses of iron supplements include abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, and diarrhoea. There is also growing evidence it negatively impacts a patient’s gut microbiome which creates other health issues.

The Head of QIMR Berghofer’s Molecular Nutrition Laboratory, Associate Professor David Frazer, said the next step is trials in pregnant women.

“We have the data showing IHAT is safe and effective in human adults and children, and in pregnant mice, so our next goal is to see if we can reproduce these results in pregnant women. We’re working through the ethical issues involved to move to this next phase,” Associate Professor Frazer said.

“The IHAT treatment is exciting because we’ve found there are less side effects, less stress on the body, and less damage to the microbiome of the gut.”

The findings of the study could have broader benefits with at least 10 per cent of Australian women likely to be deficient in iron.

The IHAT supplement was co-invented by Cambridge University’s Professor Jonathan Powell who collaborated with QIMR Berghofer’s Molecular Nutrition Laboratory to test its efficacy.

Pharmaceutical company Nemysis owns the right to develop IHAT.

The study has been published in the Journal of Nutrition.