Above: The ferritometer at Children's. Right: A patient gets tested for liver iron by the ferritometer.
People with sickle cell anemia and thalassemia often require blood transfusions to maintain their health. This successful remedy has extended the lives and well-being of untold numbers of patients. The rub is: Every drop of blood contains 1 mg of iron. The body has no natural way to remove the iron, leading to iron-overload, or too much iron in the blood.
These milligrams of iron get stored in the organs and the iron oxidizes, or, like a bumper on a car, rusts. The membranes and tissues in the body are slowly destroyed. Iron overload affects the pancreas, and the hormone making organs that guide gonadal functions, and eventually the heart itself and the patient dies of heart disease. Therefore, monitoring the extent of iron-overload in the bodies of sickle cell and thalassemia patients is critical to maintaining their health. The traditional way to do this is with liver biopsy, an invasive procedure that requires a tiny slice of liver tissue to analyze.
The ferritometer—or SQUID for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device—is a non-invasive technology that measures liver iron in about 15 minutes using super-cooled magnets. Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland has one of only four ferritometers in the world.
The Health Sciences Building, where the ferritometer is housed, is located on the campus of Children’s Hospital Oakland’s research institute. The building was designed to meet the machine’s very specific technical requirements. The ferritometer can’t be anywhere near metal that contains iron. Its key component is a 2-inch magnet, cooled to minus 425 degrees Fahrenheit, which is so sensitive that any kind of magnetic vibration—say, someone walking by with a hammer—can skew test results.
Constructing a home for equipment with such exacting specifications presented unique challenges. Designers came up with some creative non-metallic (or non-ferrous) alternatives to the steel rebar, nails, ductwork, concrete reinforcing, flashing etc. used in standard construction. The anchor bolts attaching the building to its foundation and much of the door hardware are carbon fiber. Screws and nails are made of bronze, which contains no iron. The rebar is fiberglass, and the mesh used for affixing plaster to interior walls is plastic. PVC was used for ductwork and air grilles are custom made of wood.
Consultations & Information:
If you wish to set up a consultation to get information about this test, call: (510) 428-3347
If you have been referred for an appointment for a non-invasive liver iron measurement at the Ferritometer, at Children's Hospital Oakland Thalassemia Center, call: (510) 428-3429