AIMS--To evaluate the changes in transferrin saturation in patients with iron overload following the oral administration of the iron chelator deferiprone; to assess the correlation between the degree of transferrin desaturation, the deferiprone dose, and urinary iron excretion. METHODS--Serum samples were obtained from 16 patients with iron overload at different time intervals following the oral administration of deferiprone (50 mg/kg). These samples were analysed using 6M urea/polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (UPAGE). This method is able to resolve serum transferrin into four different forms (free iron, two forms of monoferric, and diferric). The deferiprone concentration in these samples was estimated using high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC). Zero time samples (t0) from 10 patients were incubated with 150 microM deferiprone or normal saline either at room temperature or at 37 degrees C for 30 minutes and 24 hours, and also at -20 degrees C for six weeks. Samples were then analysed using UPAGE. RESULTS--A maximum decrease in transferrin saturation from (mean (SD)) 93.0 (10.6)% to 54.5 (17.2)% was observed 72.5 (50.0) minutes after deferiprone administration and in most of the patients coincided with peak deferiprone concentration. This was associated with a maximum rise in the percentage of iron free transferrin (apotransferrin) from 2.9 (7.0)% to 27.3 (17.8)%. The total amount of iron estimated to be removed from transferrin constituted 21.3 (20.2)% of the 24 hour urinary iron excretion measured during the study. When deferiprone (150 mumol/l) was incubated in vitro with t0 samples from 10 patients for 30 minutes and 24 hours at room temperature, 37 degrees C, and at -20 degrees C for six weeks, deferiprone was more efficient at removing iron from transferrin at 37 degrees C, with maximum transferrin desaturation accomplished within 30 minutes compared with 24 hours at room temperature. CONCLUSIONS--The results confirm that deferiprone can remove iron from transferrin when administered orally to patients with iron overload and that transferrin bound iron may, therefore, be a significant source of the iron chelated by deferiprone in vivo.