Genetic blood condition haemochromatosis provides a positive spin-off for blood banks
Tara Harrison has been donating blood since she was 17 to treat the blood condition haemochromatosis. (ABC News: Sarah Collard)
In her teens, Tara Harrison was so exhausted she missed out on almost a full year of school.
- Haemochromatosis is a genetic condition where the blood has too much iron
- It causes low energy and muscle aches, and can lead to cancer
- The treatment is to regularly donate blood, which rids the body of the excess iron
Diagnosed with a genetic blood condition at the age of 14, she struggled to get out of bed and have the energy to keep up with her Year 9 studies.
“I was really tired … school was hard, classes were hard,” she said.
“I didn’t have the energy to do anything.”
Ms Harrison suffers from haemochromatosis — a condition in which her body absorbs too much iron.
But, unlike other chronic health problems, her disorder has had a positive spin-off for others.
To manage her condition, she regularly gives blood to rid her body of the excess iron.
Now 21, she has been donating blood since she was 17 and estimated she provided about half a litre of blood each time.
Regular blood donations and controlling the diet are the keys to treating haemochromatosis. (ABC News: Maisie Cohen)
From ‘Celtic curse’ to ‘super donors’
Gastroenterologist and Edith Cowan University researcher John Olynyk described people with haemochromatosis as “super donors”.
“They donate very regularly and very frequently,” he said.
Professor John Olynyk found sufferers of haemochromatosis have larger blood cells than other people. (ABC News: Sarah Collard)
Haemochromatosis is most common in people of Celtic and Northern European descent, and is often referred to as the “Celtic curse”.
People with the condition absorb too much iron from their diet and over time it leads to iron overload.
The condition sometimes shows no symptoms, but some people experience low energy and muscle aches.
If left untreated, it can lead to cancers, arthritis, fertility problems and a range of other health outcomes.
It took multiple tests to confirm that Ms Harrison had the gene mutation responsible.
“The doctor was doing continuous testing and then they tested my iron levels, and they were just a little bit too high especially for my young age. They then did more testing and found out I had the genetic mutation,” Ms Harrison said.
“I didn’t know what it was at all … I didn’t delve into that until I was a little bit older and understood how serious it was.”
Breakthrough test goes nationwide
Now researchers have found an easier way of diagnosing the condition by looking at the enlarged blood cells that are only present in those with the condition.
‘What we’ve done is show how you can take an existing test and value-add and help us diagnose Australia’s most common inherited disorder with Australia’s most common blood test,” Professor Olynyk said.
“Because it’s so simple and practical, it’s already being rolled out in clinical practices here, and the next step is rolling it out in other states.”
Tara Harrison was diagnosed in her teens after experiencing extreme exhaustion. (ABC News: Sarah Collard )
Ms Harrison, who also tried to restrict her iron through diet, said she felt better immediately after blood donations.
“You can almost feel when you just need to give blood,” she said.
“It’s really rewarding knowing I can help others through helping myself.”