Blood donors with the high-iron disorder hereditary hemochromatosis welcome at UCLA

Blood & Platelet Center program is able to add this blood to the donor supply, which is rare among collection centers

People with hereditary hemochromatosis, a disorder in which too much iron builds up in the body, typically have to undergo therapeutic phlebotomy — essentially bloodletting — to regulate iron levels, sometimes as often as once a week.

Blood donations are collected at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Until recently, this blood was discarded rather than made part of the nation’s blood supply, which hit a critical low during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That changed in December of 2020 when the UCLA Blood & Platelet Center initiated a program that allows people with hereditary hemochromatosis to donate blood as often as their physicians recommend, contributing life-saving blood for those in need and saving themselves the cost and effort associated with therapeutic phlebotomy.

“It doesn’t cost anything and they can help somebody,” says Matthew Hoffman, coordinator of special donations at the UCLA Blood & Platelet Center. “And it’s much easier to arrange than going to a phlebotomy center.”

Hereditary hemochromatosis, one of the most common genetic diseases in the U.S., is a condition in which the body absorbs too much iron from food. As iron builds up in excess, it can cause damage to tissues and organs including the skin, heart, liver, joints, pancreas, thyroid and pituitary.

About one in every 200 to 500 people in the U.S. has hereditary hemochromatosis.

To donate blood, individuals still must meet standard eligibility requirements for community blood donors, which include being 17 or older and in good health, weighing at least 110 pounds, not using needles for drugs or piercings in the past three months and not traveling to a malaria-risk area within three months. They do not have to be patients of UCLA Health.

With a doctor’s note, people with hereditary hemochromatosis can donate more frequently than the generally mandated two-month interval, Hoffman says.

“The advantage, from a collections standpoint, is we have some donors who can come in once a week instead of once every 56 days,” he says.

Requirements to donate blood include being 17 or older, in good health and weight at least 110 pounds. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

No doctor’s note is needed to donate according to the typical schedule.

UCLA’s pioneering protocol

Other blood-collection organizations, including the American Red Cross, have policies to not accept donations from people with hereditary hemochromatosis.

Every facility can determine its own protocols within U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, which stipulate acceptable iron levels in donated blood.

“Ultimately, it becomes an operational decision,” Hoffman says.

UCLA Health began developing its operational framework to accept blood donations from people with hereditary hemochromatosis in 2018. The process allows units from these individuals to be handled the same as any other blood donation.

Hoffman recalls being excited about the prospect of welcoming the donors.

“I started handling these sorts of calls in 2011 from people looking for therapeutic phlebotomy,” he says. “And, at that time, if you searched online for ‘therapeutic phlebotomy near me,’ the nearest result was Texas.”

Learn more about donating through the UCLA Blood and Platelet Center.