Iron and copper ions play important roles in many physiological functions of our body, even though the exact mechanisms regulating their absorption, distribution and excretion are not fully understood. Metal-related human pathology may be observed in two different clinical settings: deficiency or overload. The overload in liver cells of both trace elements leads to multiple cellular lesions. Here we report the main pathological changes observed at transmission electron microscopy in the liver of subjects affected by Beta-thalassemia and by Wilson’s disease. The hepatic iron overload in beta-thalassemia patients is associated with haemosiderin storage both in Kupffer cells and in the cytoplasm of hepatocytes. Haemosiderin granules are grouped inside voluminous lysosomes, also called siderosomes. Other ultrastructural changes are fat droplets, proliferation of the smooth endoplasmic reticulum and fibrosis. Apoptosis of hepatocytes and infiltration of sinusoids by polymorphonucleates is also detected in beta-thalassemia. Ultrastructural changes in liver biopsies from Wilson’s disease patients are characterized by severe mitochondrial changes, associated with an increased number of perossisomes, cytoplasmic lipid droplets and the presence of lipolysosomes, characteristic cytoplasmic bodies formed by lipid vacuoles surrounded by electron-dense lysosomes. In patients affected by Wilson’s disease, nuclei are frequently involved, with disorganization of the nucleoplasm and with glycogen inclusions. On the contrary, no significant changes are detected in Kupffer cells. Our data show that iron and copper, even though are both transition metals, are responsible of different pathological changes at ultrastructural level. In particular, copper overload is associated with mitochondrial damage, whereas iron overload only rarely may cause severe mitochondrial changes. These differences underlay the need for further studies in which biochemical analyses should be associated with ultrastructural data, in order to better understand the molecular ways associated with iron- and copper-related pathology at subcellular level.
Keywords: Beta-thalassemia, copper overload, iron overload, liver, transmission electron microscopy, Wilson’s disease.