Transferrin/transferrin receptor-mediated drug delivery

Med Res Rev. 2002 May;22(3):225-50. doi: 10.1002/med.10008.


Since transferrin was discovered more than half a century ago, a considerable effort has been made towards understanding tranferrin-mediated iron uptake. However, it was not until recently with the identification and characterization of several new genes related to iron homeostasis, such as the hemochromatosis protein HFE and the iron transporter DMT1, that our knowledge has been advanced dramatically. A major pathway for cellular iron uptake is through internalization of the complex of iron-bound transferrin and the transferrin receptor, which is negatively modulated by HFE, a protein related to hereditary hemochromatosis. Iron is released from transferrin as the result of the acidic pH in endosome and then is transported to the cytosol by DMT1. The iron is then utilized as a cofactor by heme and ribonucleotide reductase or stored in ferritin. Apart from iron, many other metal ions of therapeutic and diagnostic interests can also bind to transferrin at the iron sites and their transferrin complexes can be recognized by many cells. Therefore, transferrin has been thought as a "delivery system" for many beneficial and harmful metal ions into the cells. Transferrin has also be widely applied as a targeting ligand in the active targeting of anticancer agents, proteins, and genes to primary proliferating malignant cells that overexpress transferrin receptors. This is achieved by conjugation of transferrin with drugs, proteins, hybride systems with marcomolecules and as liposomal-coated systems. Conjugates of anticancer drugs with transferrin can significantly improve the selectivity and toxicity and overcome drug resistance, thereby leading to a better treatment. The coupling of DNA to transferrin via a polycation such as polylysine or via cationic liposomes can target and transfer of the extrogenous DNA particularly into proliferating cells through receptor-mediated endocytosis. These kinds of non-viral vectors are potential alternatives to viral vectors for gene therapy, if the transfection efficiency can be improved. Moreover, transferrin receptors have shown potentials in delivery of therapeutic drugs or genes into the brain across blood-brain barrier.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Drug Delivery Systems*
  • Endocytosis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Protein Conformation
  • Receptors, Transferrin / chemistry
  • Receptors, Transferrin / genetics
  • Receptors, Transferrin / metabolism
  • Receptors, Transferrin / physiology*
  • Transferrin / chemistry
  • Transferrin / genetics
  • Transferrin / metabolism
  • Transferrin / physiology*


  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin
  • Iron