Iron, free radicals and cancer

Med Oncol Tumor Pharmacother. 1991;8(4):229-33. doi: 10.1007/BF02987191.


Free radicals, intermediates in the tissue damage caused by radiation, are formed, inter alia, in interactions catalyzed by iron, which synergizes with radiation and some cytostatics (anthracyclins) in causing cell damage. Conversely, iron chelators can counteract cell damage. Similarly, antioxidants can slow atherogenesis, caused in part by oxidative stress and free radicals. Cell damage is also prevented by physiological defense systems like superoxide dismutase, against endogenous free radicals formed by granulocytes, monocytes, etc. Iron can thus induce free radicals which cause DNA double strand breaks and oncogene activation. This is suggested by four epidemiological studies suggesting a higher cancer risk in patients with larger iron stores than in those with small iron stores. In addition to its effect on carcinogenesis, iron can also maintain the growth of malignant cells as well as growth of pathogens. Breast cancer cells, for instance, display 5-15 times more transferrin receptors than normal breast tissue. Iron-carrying transferrin is in fact a growth factor. Hyposideremia in patients with cancer or infection is not a paraphenomenon but a functioning defense mechanism ('nutritional immunity'). If this immunity is broken by iron administration, relapses of diseases like tuberculosis, brucellosis, and malaria have been described. While iron-deficiency anemia should of course be diagnosed, treated and if possible prevented, there are good reasons to avoid over-utilization of medicamental iron.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Free Radicals / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Iron / pharmacology*
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*


  • Free Radicals
  • Iron