New Medication Aims to Reduce Iron Overload, Protect Heart and Liver

Jonghan Kim in Lab
Lingxue Zeng, Ph.D. student in the pharmaceutical sciences program, Assoc. Prof. Jonghan Kim and research scientist Melis Debreli Coskun review microscopic data.

By Karen Angelo

For people who need blood transfusions, iron can accumulate in the heart and liver, causing damage and sometimes death. Doctors often prescribe medications called chelators that bind to iron and remove it from the body. However, patients tend to avoid taking these drugs due to severe side effects such as nausea, vomiting, internal bleeding and liver damage. 

To address that problem, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute awarded UMass Lowell and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) a $2.9 million grant to develop a long-acting nanoparticle drug that targets and captures iron in the blood and removes it from the body without harsh side effects. 

“By using nanoparticles, the drug is delivered only in the blood, binds to extra iron and quickly removes it via urine,” says Assoc. Prof. Jonghan Kim of the Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences Department, who is co-leading the research study with MGH. “This avoids the accumulation of iron in the body and significantly decreases side effects that are associated with chelator drugs.” 

In initial studies, Kim has found a new nanoparticle drug formulation that requires a lower dosage compared to the chelator drugs in use today, making it safer and more effective. Delivered by injection, the drug may only have to be administered once a month, which increases the chances that patients will receive the treatment without having to worry about side effects. 

“This is a patient-friendly medication method because patients who require transfusions need to visit clinics every three to four weeks, so they can receive a transfusion and the nanoparticle drug at the same time,” he says. 

Kim, whose research involves developing novel therapeutic strategies to prevent and treat iron-associated disorders, also recently received a $2.7 million grant to find a new medication that will reduce iron overload in the hearts of patients who take a popular chemotherapy drug called doxorubicin. Funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Kim’s research team is developing a small-molecule drug that enters the heart, binds to the iron and removes it without compromising the chemotherapeutic effect. This will allow cancer patients to continue doxorubicin therapy while reducing the risk of heart damage associated with iron overload. 

Last year, Kim received a $1.2 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for a study that aims to predict the impact of doxorubicin on cancer patients’ hearts by monitoring the protein hemopexin, which circulates in blood. He recently published research results in Science Advances of an initial study that shows promising results of hemopexin as an early biomarker to prevent doxorubicin-associated heart damage.