The molecular genetics of haemochromatosis
Haemochromatosis is the most common single gene disorder to afflict North- West European populations. It is probably the most common genetic disorder of iron metabolism worldwide. As many as 1 in 250 people in the UK are affected and although the phenotype causes only a mild increase in gastrointestinal iron absorption a proportion of affected individuals will accumulate sufficient iron over their life-time to cause cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Venesection treatment instituted before cirrhosis has established ensures a normal life expectancy, but clinical presentation is often late in life after irreversible organ injury has occurred. Identification of people at risk in the early, asymptomatic stage by measurements of iron status is unreliable. The genetic defect responsible for haemochromatosis has been sought in the hope that its identification might facilitate early diagnosis and that studies on the gene product would lead to a greater understanding of the mechanisms of mammalian iron absorption. Genetic linkage to HLA-A3 placed the gene responsible for haemchromatosis in, or close to, the major histocompatibilty complex (MHC) on the short arm of chromosome 6 and a positional cloning strategy has been adopted. This thesis describes work directed to the identification of the haemochromatosis gene by positional cloning. The region telomeric to the MHC was mapped using yeast artificial chromosomes, from which new microsatellites were isolated. These markers were used in linkage disequilibrium analyses and the mapping of a recombination breakpoint that defined a haemochromatosis gene region. This region was physically mapped in fine detail and positional candidates sought by EST database analysis. Before a systematic search for genes in the region began a strong positional candidate was reported (Feder et al 1996). Analysis of this mutation in patients from the UK confirmed this to be the ancestral haemochromatosis mutation.