Hepcidin measurement advances insights in pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment of iron disorders, but requires analytically sound and standardized measurement procedures (MPs). Recent development of a two-level secondary reference material (sRM) for hepcidin assays allows worldwide standardization. However, no proficiency testing (PT) schemes to ensure external quality assurance (EQA) exist and the absence of a high calibrator in the sRM set precludes optimal standardization.
We developed a pilot PT together with the Dutch EQA organization Stichting Kwaliteitsbewaking Medische Laboratoriumdiagnostiek (SKML) that included 16 international hepcidin MPs. The design included 12 human serum samples that allowed us to evaluate accuracy, linearity, precision and standardization potential. We manufactured, value-assigned, and validated a high-level calibrator in a similar manner to the existing low- and middle-level sRM.
The pilot PT confirmed logistical feasibility of an annual scheme. Most MPs demonstrated linearity (R2>0.99) and precision (duplicate CV>12.2%), although the need for EQA was shown by large variability in accuracy. The high-level calibrator proved effective, reducing the inter-assay CV from 42.0% (unstandardized) to 14.0%, compared to 17.6% with the two-leveled set. The calibrator passed international homogeneity criteria and was assigned a value of 9.07±0.24 nmol/L.
We established a framework for future PT to enable laboratory accreditation, which is essential to ensure quality of hepcidin measurement and its use in patient care. Additionally, we showed optimized standardization is possible by extending the current sRM with a third high calibrator, although international implementation of the sRM is a prerequisite for its success.
The liver-derived hormone hepcidin is the key regulator of iron homeostasis by inhibiting the only known cellular iron exporter ferroportin , . Since dysregulation of hepcidin causes a variety of iron disorders, including anemia of inflammation, its measurement and its ratio to ferritin and transferrin saturation can be used to diagnose certain iron disorders and guide iron therapies, making it an important diagnostic biomarker , , . Furthermore, hepcidin is a therapeutic target for both iron-overload disorders, such as β-thalassemia and hereditary hemochromatosis, and iron-restrictive anemias as observed with iron refractory iron deficiency anemia (IRIDA), inflammatory diseases, certain tumors and chronic kidney disease , , .
Both mass spectrometry (MS) and immunochemistry (IC) based measurement procedures (MPs) have been developed to quantify hepcidin concentrations. However, our previous studies revealed that hepcidin levels in the same clinical sample may vary up to a factor of 9 among different MPs , , , . This lack of worldwide standardization causes confusion in interpretation of hepcidin levels and hepcidin-related ratios, which hampers both research collaborations and multicenter medical consultations . Effective use of hepcidin measurement in patient care and clinical research require both comparability and analytical reliability to establish uniform clinical decision limits and reference ranges . This is essential to compare results across studies or monitor a patient’s treatment at different facilities to prevent inconsistent or incorrect conclusions.
As a first step, we developed a two-leveled (low and middle) commutable secondary reference material (sRM) made of human serum that was value-assigned by a primary reference material (pRM) . We showed that calibration using this sRM reduced the inter-method coefficient of variation (CV) from 42.1 to 11.0% when standardization was simulated and from 52.8 to 19.1% when standardization was performed in practice. The sRM, with concentrations of 0.95 ± 0.11 nmol/L and 3.75 ± 0.17 nmol/L (k=1), increases comparability between MPs but calibrates solely the lower part of the pathophysiological hepcidin range. Therefore, in this current study, we produced and validated a third high-level calibrator to cover the higher hepcidin levels. Global implementation of the sRM allows standardization of all hepcidin MPs, meaning measurements can be traced back to the Système International (SI) and a “true” value can be established , . As a next step, to evaluate the analytical performance of hepcidin assays and ensure reliability of hepcidin MPs, we aimed to create the first external quality assurance (EQA) program for hepcidin assays to pave the way for laboratory accreditation.
Here, we report the results of a pilot proficiency test (PT) organized and implemented in collaboration with Dutch external quality assurance (EQA) organizer Stichting Kwaliteitsbewaking Medische Laboratoriumdiagnostiek (SKML) . The aims of this proficiency initiative were to set-up a framework for a worldwide EQA program for hepcidin assays, in which the analytical performance and current agreement among international hepcidin MPs was determined, and to evaluate the calibration potential of the three-leveled sRM.
The aims of our study were two-fold. First, we wanted to evaluate the current analytical performance and agreement of hepcidin MPs worldwide and determine if standardization has already been achieved regarding recent production of a sRM. To this end, we established the framework for an EQA scheme in order to provide participating laboratories with a summary of their analytical performance to allow opportunities for accreditation and ultimately improve the standard of diagnostics and patient care internationally.
Second, we produced a high-level calibrator in the same manner as those already developed  and aimed to validate its potential to improve standardization compared to the two-leveled sRM using retrospective calibration of the PT samples.
To this end, in collaboration with SKML (Supplementary Figure 1), we developed a PT that included a variety of international hepcidin MPs. We produced a set of 12 lyophilized human serum samples with target values determined by a candidate reference measurement procedure (cRMP, Supplementary Table 1), designed to address accuracy, linearity, precision and standardization potential. These samples included the existing two calibrators , the newly produced third candidate calibrator, a linearity panel with three blinded duplicates and three additional samples. These additional samples were selected to cover the upper end of the (patho)physiological range, which was not included in the linearity panel, to ensure good coverage of the whole clinically relevant range as such make the sample set robust for the purposes of a thorough pilot PT scheme.
Laboratories housing hepcidin MPs were invited to participate based on previous collaborations , , expressed interest in purchasing the sRM, or published on hepcidin as a diagnostic biomarker in 2018 and 2019 in peer reviewed journals.
The initial group included 15 laboratories running 19 MPs (10 MS and 9 IC) from 12 countries and 3 continents. All were asked to run the samples within two weeks of receipt and to perform their assays in the same manner as they would for their routine use. IC-2 experienced calibrator errors resulting in unreliable data and IC-4 encountered significant equipment errors that prevented them from running their assay and reporting results. MS-3 did not consent to de-anonymization, excluding their results. Therefore, the final cohort included 16 MPs (9 MS and 7 IC, Table 1).
|Participant code||MP||Extraction||Standard||Standard manufacturer||Ref|
|MS-1||MALDI-TOF MS||WCX||Heavy-isotope labeled synthetic hepcidin-25||Peptides International|||
|MS-2||LC-MS/MS||Precipitation with ACN||Heavy-isotope labeled synthetic hepcidin-25||Peptides International|||
|MS-4||LC-MS/MS||Reversed phase||Hepcidin/LEAP-1 from Peptides Int.||Peptides International||a|
|MS-5||LC-MS/MS||Mixed anion exchange||Heavy-isotope labeled synthetic hepcidin-25||Peptide Institute|||
|MS-6||LC-MS/MS||HBL/Waters||Heavy-isotope labeled synthetic hepcidin-25||Peptide Institute|||
|MS-7||LC-MS/MS||SPE||Heavy-isotope labeled synthetic hepcidin-25||Peptide Institute||b|
|MS-8||LC-MS/MS||SPE||Heavy-isotope labeled synthetic hepcidin-25||Synthesized in house|||
|MS-9||UPLC-MS/MS||Reversed phase SPE||Heavy-isotope labeled synthetic hepcidin-25||Synthesized in house|||
|MS-10||LC-MS/MS||Reversed phase SPE||Heavy-isotope labeled synthetic hepcidin-25||Peptide Institute Inc|||
|IC-6||cELISA||None||Synthetic hepcidin-25||Peptides International/AmbioPharm||e|
|IC-7||cELISA||None||Synthetic hepcidin-25||Peptides International/AmbioPharm||f|
MP, measurement procedure; MS, mass spectrometry-based MP; IC, immunochemical-based MP; MALDI, matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization; TOF, time of flight; LC, liquid chromatography; UPLC, ultra-performance liquid chromatography; SPE, solid phase extraction; cELISA, competitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay; WCX, weak-cation exchange; HLB, hydrophilic lipophilic balanced reverse phase; ACN, acetonitrile. aNo reference available, an MS method based on the assay described in Schmitz et al. , developed by the Institute of Laboratory Medicine, Kantonsspital Aarau, Aarau, Switzerland. bManuscript under preparation; a laboratory-developed MP for hepcidin-25 by Laboratory for the Analysis of Medicines, University of Liège, Liège, Belgium. cHepcidin 25 bioactive automated ELISA (Cat. #HYE-5769) from DRG Diagnostics, Marburg, Germany. dHepcidin 25 bioactive HS Kit (Cat. #EIA-5782) commercially available assay from DRG Diagnostics, Marburg, Germany. eNo reference available; Intrinsic Hepcidin IDxTM Kit (product #ICE-007) – commercially available competitive ELISA from Intrinsic LifeSciences, La Jolla, USA. fNo reference available; Intrinsic Hepcidin IDxTM Test – automated competitive ELISA from Intrinsic LifeSciences, La Jolla, USA.
All labs were provided with both a digital and hard copy of a Standard Data Report Form (Supplementary Figure 2) that included questions about the measurement method, a table to report results in the units they were measured, and space for remarks. Laboratories were asked to return the completed form within two weeks of receiving the samples.
To produce the linearity panel of three duplicates, three additional samples within the physiological hepcidin range  and a high-level calibrator, we periodically collected and processed anonymized leftover serum from routine diagnostics and therapeutic phlebotomies in December 2019 and January 2020. Details are described in the Supplementary Methods.
All lyophilized sample sets were shipped at room temperature (RT) on the same day from Streekziekenhuis Koningin Beatrix in Winterswijk, The Netherlands. All were instructed to store the samples at 4 °C upon arrival until the assay was performed and information about sample storage and handling was provided both digitally over email and in hard copy with shipment.
This study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. All leftover patient serum was anonymized upon collection and was handled in accordance with the code for proper secondary use of human tissue in The Netherlands.
Results reported in ng/mL were converted to nmol/L, using the molecular weight of hepcidin-25 (2789.4 g/mol) . The values determined by MS-1 were used as target values for evaluating the proficiency of all laboratories, as MS-1 was previously described as cRMP that is calibrated using the reference material . For the purposes of the pilot, potential outliers were not removed in order to avoid biasing the data.
Equivalence between MPs was assessed in terms of accuracy of each MP, a ratio of each laboratory-assigned value to the target value converted to percentage, and bias (nmol/L) of each result compared to the cRMP, calculated by subtracting the values obtained by each laboratory for each sample from the target value determined by MS-1. Additionally, the intra-assay CVs for each sample (n=9, excluding the three calibrators) were calculated among all laboratories (n=18) as well as within each method group (IC or MS). The resulting CVs were then averaged and quantified as the mean inter-assay CV (%).
Analytical performance was assessed in terms of linearity and precision. For evaluation of linearity, the duplicate linearity samples were averaged and linear regression was performed to find an R2 value. Precision was evaluated by determining the CV for each of the three duplicate samples. To evaluate adequacy of precision for hepcidin measurements, optimal precision was calculated as , where is the intra-individual CV (48.8%)  and is 0.25 for an optimal threshold.
Commutability of the low and middle calibrators was assessed previously with regression analysis of 16 native serum samples for all 9 MPs (y-axis) against the mean of all MPs (x-axis) . As the mean results of both calibrators fell within the 95% prediction interval of the regression line, commutability was confirmed. Since the third high calibrator was produced in the same manner as the previously developed calibrators, commutability was assumed here.
All laboratories received the samples blinded, therefore the effect of standardization by using the sRM was performed retrospectively by value reassignment based on linear regression of the results of the sRM samples per MP against the respective results of the cRMP MS-1. The inter-assay dispersion in these simulated results was then expressed as the inter-assay CV (%) after standardization with the sRM and compared with the inter-assay CV (%) before standardization. It is important to note that good analytical performance is a prerequisite to evaluating standardization potential.
Hepcidin exhibits relatively high biological variation, i.e. a between-day intra-individual variation of 48.8% and an inter-individual variation of 154.1% . Therefore, to place the bias of all hepcidin measurement compared to MS-1 in a relevant diagnostic context, total allowable error (TEa) was calculated using
Homogeneity was evaluated according to ISO13528 by means of duplicate measurements of 12 randomly selected calibrator samples by MS-1 , . The sRM was reconstituted with 0.30 mL deionized water and left at RT for 15 min, followed by careful mixing for 20 min (roller bench, 3.5 rpm). We compared within-vial to between-vial variation to assess if the calibrator passes homogeneity criteria.
Stability was evaluated by storing aliquots of the sRM at 4 °C. Measurements were performed by MS-1 at baseline and after 1 and 6 months. These will be continued at 12 and 18 months, and then annually for five years. Concentration changes are considered significant, and indicative of instability, if they exceed the precision of MS-1. Statistical analysis was done using analysis of variance (ANOVA) and Bonferroni’s multiple comparison test.
The true value of the high calibrator was assigned using the cRMP, a validated Weak-Cation-eXchange MALDI-Time of Flight-MS (MS-1) . We used the pRM to reassign the internal standard of MS-1 (stable isotope, manufactured by Peptide International) and subsequently used this internal standard to assign a value to the candidate high-level calibrator, as described previously .
A primary goal of the pilot PT was to assess the feasibility of sample preparation and send-out. No significant problems were encountered in this process. Anonymous sample collection from diagnostic leftovers and therapeutic phlebotomies was efficient, and the process of developing PT samples of particular concentrations based on initial hepcidin measurements was successful. All samples were delivered to laboratories within three days of shipment from The Netherlands and all laboratories reported that samples arrived without any visible damage.
Measurement by the laboratories was generally uncomplicated, though six MPs (from five laboratories) reported after the two-week deadline but still within four weeks of receiving the samples. Laboratories reported late due to equipment malfunction, scheduling conflicts, or commercial ELISA shipping delays. No laboratories reported errors with sample reconstitution and handling. All laboratories correctly and completely filled out the standard data report form.
Data analysis of the uncalibrated results showed a high level of variation among the absolute hepcidin values of the methods evaluated (Supplementary Table 2), confirming the need for standardization. Analytical performance of each MP is summarized in Table 2. For IC methods, the value for HPT2020-S9 (21.18 nmol/L, Supplementary Table 1) was reported as out of range for three MPs. For the purpose of data analysis, these values were excluded for those assays.
|MP||Accuracy [Range], %||R2||Precision, %CV|
|Duplicate 1||Duplicate 2||Duplicate 3||Average|
MP, measurement procedure; MS, mass spectrometry-based MP; IC, immunochemical-based MP; N/A, not applicable. Accuracy (%) is expressed as a ratio of each laboratory-assigned value to the target value as determined by MS-1. R2 was calculated using linear regression of the three linearity panel samples. Precision, expressed as percent coefficient of variation, was calculated using the blinded duplicates of the three linearity samples. R2 and precision are indicators of analytical assay performance, whereas accuracy is indicative of the need for standardization. Values above the optimal precision threshold (12.2% CV) are depicted in blue.
On average, the accuracy was 145% and ranged from 76 to 540% (Table 2), again stressing the current lack of standardization. IC methods reported higher results on average (Supplementary Table 3). The bias of each measurement from the target values determined by cRMP MS-1 without standardization is shown in Figure 1A. By placing these results in the context of the TEa, we assessed if the inter-assays CVs are adequate for the biological variation of hepcidin, as described in Diepeveen et al. . Based on reported inter- and intra-individual CVs for hepcidin, TEa of 40.3% (optimum), 80.7% (desirable), and 121.0% (minimum) were calculated and subsequently plotted. Many results fall outside of the optimum range and although most fall within the minimum ranges, one MP did not meet the minimum TEa criteria.
In general, laboratories showed good analytical performance in terms of linearity, with a linear regression R2 average of 0.9959 (range: 0.9704–1, Table 2). These results suggest that the linearity of the assays is acceptable, at least up to a concentration of 12.2 nmol/L (highest linearity sample). While for most laboratories R2 values above 0.99 were found, MS-5 reported data with a lower R2 value (0.9704).
Analytical performance assessed in terms of precision was, on average, less than the calculated optimal minimum CV of 12.2% for most MPs (Table 2). The exception is MS-5. Three additional assays reported at least one of the three duplicates with a CV>12.2% (MS-7, MS-8, IC-6).
The third high calibrator, made of lyophilized serum with CLP, was validated during the proficiency test solely with MPs that met our criteria of good analytical performance assessed in terms of linearity and precision. To this end, MS-5 was not included in this evaluation of the calibration potential.
Without standardization, the overall inter-assay CV was found to be 42.0% (Table 3). Looking at MS and IC methods separately, we found an inter-assay CV of 25.3% for MS MPs and an inter-assay CV of 45.9% for IC MPs. As expected, mathematical simulation of standardization with the two-leveled sRM showed a great reduction of the inter-assay CV (overall; 17.6%, MS; 11.0%, IC; 17.2%, Table 3). Mathematical simulation of standardization using the three-leveled sRM, including our newly produced third high calibrator, shows an even better improvement in the inter-assay CV (overall; 14.0%, MS; 8.8%, IC; 15.7%, Table 3), achieved in large part by improving equivalency at higher concentrations. Additionally, the average accuracy of all of the MPs was found to be improved from 145% unstandardized to 106.4% with the two-level calibrator and 105.8% with the three-level calibrator (Table 3). When visualizing bias, the spread is clearly reduced using the two-leveled calibrator (Figure 1B) compared to the non-calibrated data (Figure 1A). However, in particular the IC methods still tend to show higher variability both above and below the target values. With the use of the three-leveled calibrator (Figure 1C), nearly all results fall within the minimum bias allowance and most meet the desirable bias allowance for both MS and IC methods. It is important to note that even though MS-5 did not meet the analytical performance criteria to be included in this standardization evaluation, when retrospectively calibrated, its results still fall within the desirable bias range (Supplementary Figure 3).
|Mean inter-assay CV, %||42.0||17.6||14.0||25.3||11.0||8.8||45.9||17.2||15.7|
|Mean accuracy, %||151.5||106.4||105.8||129.6||97.0||100.3||173.4||115.7||111.2|
MS, mass spectrometry-based MP; IC, immunochemical-based MP; CV, coefficient of variation. Inter-assay CV (%) and accuracy (%) before calibration (Pre), calibration with the low- and middle-level calibrators (2-L) and all three calibrators (3-L) were evaluated for all methods and MS/IC separately.
The calibrator passed homogeneity criteria as described by ISO13528 , as the between-vial variation (SD: 0.236 nM) was smaller than the within-vial variation (SD: 0.322 nM).
The material was found to be stable for up to 6 months (stability testing ongoing), although stability up to 5 years is assumed since this is confirmed for lyophilized material with CLP in previous studies , . Its value was assigned using the pRM and MS-1, as the candidate RMP, and is defined as 9.07 ± 0.24 nM (k=1).
Multiple studies have shown that absolute hepcidin levels reported for the same clinical sample vary tremendously depending on the MP used, which complicates utility of the biomarker , , , . As a first step towards uniform hepcidin measurement, a two-leveled commutable sRM was produced, enabling worldwide standardization . To optimize this, we now have established a framework for future quality assurance and extended the sRM by adding a third high calibrator.
Here, we showed that PT is feasible and most MPs perform well on linearity and precision, which is a prerequisite for standardization and ensures reliable hepcidin measurement. However, the average accuracy of all MPs was found to be 145%, which stresses the clear need for EQA and reveals that even though an sRM is available, standardization has not yet been achieved. Furthermore, our previous research suggested that calibration bias was the major contributor to measurement inaccuracy , which we tried to further reduce with expanding the sRM with a high calibrator extending the calibration potential to the upper hepcidin range. Although its assumed commutability will ideally be verified in a larger PT study, we validated its potential to reduce the inter-assay CV with retrospective standardization of the laboratory data using concentrations the laboratories obtained for the calibrators included in the PT set. The three-level calibrator reduced the inter-assay CV even more than the two-leveled calibrator (overall 2-L: 17.6%; 3-L: 14.0%) compared to non-standardized data (overall: 42.0%). Furthermore, MS-5 did not meet our criteria of acceptable precision, which afterward appeared due to internal standard inconsistencies that had gone undetected in standard practice, emphasizing the need for, and utility of, EQA. However, MS-5 results still fall within the desirable TEa when standardized, elucidating that even when optimal analytical performance is not achieved the sRM is still valuable in reducing calibration bias. When translated to patient care, these results cumulatively suggest that instituting EQA can ensure reliable, standardized hepcidin measurements. This will facilitate, for example, international communication among medical doctors regarding diagnosis of rare hepcidin-related iron disorders such as IRIDA and comparison of hepcidin-related research studies, making study outcomes more meaningful in clinical practice.
Besides decreasing calibration bias and improving the analytical performance of MPs, optimization of hepcidin standardization, and therefore utility of PT, can be further improved by reducing the heterogeneity of the measurand. A first step was made by studying the degree of hepcidin protein binding in the circulation , which was inconclusive. Further research is needed to understand if this might influence hepcidin quantification, which in turn is crucial for correct interpretation of its measurement in patients. Additionally, differences in MS and IC performance can be due to measurand heterogeneity, since we observe higher variation and less accuracy in IC compared to MS methods, which is important to clarify. Although this difference has been documented for more biomarkers , IC MPs are certainly valuable in research and diagnostics, especially where MS systems are not accessible and less accuracy may be allowed practically due to a high biological variation and therefore TEa. For hepcidin MPs, these observed differences between IC and MS MPs may be due to cross-reactivity of hepcidin isoform detection by IC methods, which is problematic since hepcidin-25 is the only biologically active isoform and the one that should be evaluated. ,  Currently, there is inconclusive data regarding the influence of isoform detection on hepcidin-25 quantification, which must be studied further to assess if it affects clinical decision making , . Furthermore, several IC methods also reported the sample with the highest target concentration (S9) to be out of range instead of providing a value, which may influence IC data. This suggests that these assays have more difficulty to measure hepcidin levels in the upper reference range and elucidates the need for a standardized protocol for handling out-of-range measurements. All in all, future efforts will be directed towards achieving a consensus on best practice for clinical hepcidin measurement.
Last, larger studies into the between- and within-subject variation of hepcidin would allow optimal assessment of the achievements of global standardization and validity of PT, since these parameters are used to place the achieved inter-assay CV after standardization within a biological context. The higher the biological variation, the higher the allowable bias after standardization. Currently, the TEa was based on relatively limited intra- and inter-individual variation data , which, though similar to other studies , , , , is not guaranteed to provide the most accurate estimate.
Altogether, this pilot program was designed to assess the current performance of MPs and lays important groundwork for an annual PT scheme. Based on the minor logistical challenges we encountered, we will extend the notification, shipment and data reporting timelines in the future enabling more laboratories to participate. Also, a scoring system for standardized laboratory evaluation will be included and a formal report will be generated in accordance with other SKML schemes. This EQA program will ultimately pave the way for international laboratory accreditation, remediation of analytically poorly performing MPs through comprehensive performance feedback, and universal definition of reference ranges and clinical decision limits. All will directly contribute to enhanced quality of hepcidin results and hepcidin-related ratios in both research and diagnostics, and consequently also in quality of publications and increased utility of hepcidin measurement in patient care. Here, we demonstrate the potential for achieving worldwide standardization, ensured by PT, although international implementation the three-leveled sRM is a prerequisite for the success of such a program. The material is available at HepcidinAnalysis.com.
We would like to recognize our colleague Mr. Florin Moise (deceased), international sales manager at DRG, for his enthusiasm for and significant contribution towards hepcidin research, standardization, and commercialization. His efforts were invaluable for the success of this pilot proficiency test and for the use of hepcidin measurement in research and clinical care. We also thank Dr. Miranda van Berkel and Dr. Teun van Herwaarden for consulting on proficiency test design and helping to organize sample collection, and the MCA laboratory in Winterswijk for preparing the samples and managing PT logistics. Last, we would like to thank Raymond Garcia from Intrinsic Life Sciences for his contributions to obtaining data from the measurement procedures.
Research funding: AEA is funded by the UK Medical Research Council (MC_UU_12010/3); work in Oxford was supported by NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre. Research at the Poznan University of Medical Sciences funded by a PRELUDIUM 12 grant from the Polish National Centre for Science (2016/23/N/NZ5/02573).
Author contributions: All authors have accepted responsibility for the entire content of this manuscript and approved its submission.
Competing interests: EA, LD, CL, SK and DS are employees of Radboudumc, which via its Hepcidinanalysis.com initiative offers high quality hepcidin measurements to the medical, scientific and pharmaceutical community at a fee for the service basis. All other authors state no conflict of interest.
Ethical approval: This study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. All leftover patient serum was anonymized upon collection and was handled in accordance with the code for proper secondary use of human tissue in The Netherlands.
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