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Gastric adenocarcinoma is strongly associated with Helicobacter pylori infection; however, most infected persons never develop this malignancy. H. pylori strains harboring the cag pathogenicity island (cag+), which encodes CagA and a type IV secretion system (T4SS), induce more severe disease outcomes. H. pylori infection is also associated with iron deficiency, which similarly augments gastric cancer risk. To define the influence of iron deficiency on microbial virulence in gastric carcinogenesis, Mongolian gerbils were maintained on iron-depleted diets and infected with an oncogenic H. pylori cag+ strain. Iron depletion accelerated the development of H. pylori-induced premalignant and malignant lesions in a cagA-dependent manner. H. pylori strains harvested from iron-depleted gerbils or grown under iron-limiting conditions exhibited enhanced virulence and induction of inflammatory factors. Further, in a human population at high risk for gastric cancer, H. pylori strains isolated from patients with the lowest ferritin levels induced more robust proinflammatory responses compared with strains isolated from patients with the highest ferritin levels, irrespective of histologic status. These data demonstrate that iron deficiency enhances H. pylori virulence and represents a measurable biomarker to identify populations of infected persons at high risk for gastric cancer.
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