Iron chelation in the biological activity of curcumin

Free Radic Biol Med. 2006 Apr 1;40(7):1152-60. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2005.11.003.


Curcumin is among the more successful chemopreventive compounds investigated in recent years, and is currently in human trials to prevent cancer. The mechanism of action of curcumin is complex and likely multifactorial. We have made the unexpected observation that curcumin strikingly modulates proteins of iron metabolism in cells and in tissues, suggesting that curcumin has properties of an iron chelator. Curcumin increased mRNA levels of ferritin and GSTalpha in cultured liver cells. Unexpectedly, however, although levels of GSTalpha protein increased in parallel with mRNA levels in response to curcumin, levels of ferritin protein declined. Since iron chelators repress ferritin translation, we considered that curcumin may act as an iron chelator. To test this hypothesis, we measured the effect of curcumin on transferrin receptor 1, a protein stabilized under conditions of iron limitation, as well as the ability of curcumin to activate iron regulatory proteins (IRPs). Both transferrin receptor 1 and activated IRP, indicators of iron depletion, increased in response to curcumin. Consistent with the hypothesis that curcumin acts as an iron chelator, mice that were fed diets supplemented with curcumin exhibited a decline in levels of ferritin protein in the liver. These results suggest that iron chelation may be an additional mode of action of curcumin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Curcumin / pharmacology*
  • Diet
  • Female
  • Ferritins / biosynthesis
  • Glutathione Transferase / biosynthesis
  • Iron / pharmacology
  • Iron Chelating Agents / pharmacology*
  • Iron Regulatory Protein 1 / biosynthesis
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Receptors, Transferrin / metabolism


  • Iron Chelating Agents
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Tfrc protein, mouse
  • Ferritins
  • Iron
  • Glutathione Transferase
  • Iron Regulatory Protein 1
  • Curcumin