Iron Deficiency | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity | Children's Charity

Iron deficiency: new supplement could offer freedom from side effects

This research was completed on 31 October 2011

Published on 13 June 2012

Estimates suggest a staggering two billion people – nearly one third of the world’s population – are affected by iron deficiency.1,2 Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable, sometimes sadly losing their lives. Sufferers of all ages are prone to infection, feeling tired and weak, and having difficulties concentrating. Dr Jonathan Powell and Dr Dora Pereira, of the Medical Research Council Human Nutrition Research Institute in Cambridge, have developed a new iron supplement, which they hope will be effective, cheap and safe. The next step is to begin clinical trials.

This project is jointly funded by Action Medical Research and WellChild.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Around one in eight pre-school children, one in four school-age children and one in 20 adults in the UK are anaemic because they are deficient in iron.3-6 Numbers are even higher in developing countries.3-6

The World Health Organization has in fact ranked iron deficiency as one of the top ten most important risks to human health, estimating that it causes almost a million deaths per year.1

“People who are anaemic due to iron deficiency are more prone to infection, they feel tired and weak, look pale, and find it difficult to concentrate and work effectively,” explains Dr Powell. “Pregnant women, new mothers and children are the most vulnerable.”

Worrying evidence suggests that iron deficiency also impairs the physical and intellectual development of young children meaning, for example, that their IQ can be reduced by up to 10 points by the time they reach school age.7-9

Current treatments for iron deficiency are inadequate. “The cheaper of the currently available iron supplements tend to cause side effects, such as abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting,” says Dr Powell. “Many people find these side effects so unpleasant they decide to stop taking their treatment. There are other treatments that are better tolerated, but they are more expensive and often not available.”

What did the project achieve?

The research team has formulated a new synthetic iron supplement, which resembles a form of iron that is naturally present in the gut after we eat our food.

“The new supplement is cheap enough for widespread use, which is important given the vast number of people with iron deficiency around the world,” says Dr Pereira. “Laboratory experiments in human cells show that the supplement is well absorbed by the gut. It also seems safer than some of the existing supplements, as it does not harm gut cells. Currently available supplements are either costly or can damage the lining of the gut, causing side effects such as constipation and diarrhoea, when given at the doses necessary to treat iron deficiency anaemia.”

“All in all, our laboratory work leads us to believe that the new supplement will be much more effective than existing treatments and will cause fewer side effects, meaning children and adults alike might find it easier to keep taking their treatment,” says Dr Pereira.

The next step is to test how safe and effective the new iron supplement is in clinical trials, first in healthy adults, then in adults with iron deficiency, and then in children.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr J Powell PhD FRSC
Project team
  • Dr Dora Pereira MEng PhD
LocationMRC Human Nutrition Research, Elsie Widdowson Laboratory, Cambridge
Duration1.5 years
Grant awarded1 March 2010
Start date1 May 2010
End date31 October 2011
Grant amount£83,234.00
Grant codeSP4528
AcknowledgementsThis project is jointly funded by Action Medical Research and WellChild

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Drs Powell and Pereira are based at the MRC HNR Elsie Widdowson Laboratory and are Senior Members at Hughes Hall in Cambridge. MRC HNR is a national centre of excellence, which conducts cutting-edge research into the relationship between nutrition and health. Drs Powell and Pereira both have considerable expertise in iron deficiency.


1. World Health Organization. The World Health Report 2002. Reducing Risks, Promoting Healthy Life.
2. United States Census Bureau World Population Clock
3. World Health Organization. WHO Global Database on Anaemia, in
4. Adamson EA, Bailey GR, Richards, N, Wilson H. Prevalence of anaemia in an inner city primary school population. Arch Dis Child 2008; 93(5):453.
5. McLean E, Cogswell M, Egli I, Wojdyla D, de Benoist B. Worldwide prevalence of anaemia, WHO Vitamin and Mineral Nutrition Information System, 1993-2005. Public Health Nutr 2009; 12(4):444-54. Epub 2008 May 23.
6. World Health Organization Global Database on Anaemia. Worldwide prevalence of anaemia 1993-2005.
7. Grantham-McGregor S and Ani C. A review of studies on the effect of iron deficiency on cognitive development in children. J Nutr 2001; 131(2S-2):649S-666S; discussion 666S-668S.
8. McCann JC and Ames BN. An overview of evidence for a causal relation between iron deficiency during development and deficits in cognitive or behavioral function. Am J Clin Nutr 2007; 85(4):931-45.
9. Lozoff B, Jimenez E, and Smith JB. Double burden of iron deficiency in infancy and low socioeconomic status: a longitudinal analysis of cognitive test scores to age 19 years. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2006; 160(11):1108-13.

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