Role of iron in carcinogenesis: cancer as a ferrotoxic disease

Cancer Sci. 2009 Jan;100(1):9-16. doi: 10.1111/j.1349-7006.2008.01001.x. Epub 2008 Oct 23.


Iron is abundant universally. During the evolutionary processes, humans have selected iron as a carrier of oxygen inside the body. However, iron works as a double-edged sword, and its excess is a risk for cancer, presumably via generation of reactive oxygen species. Thus far, pathological conditions such as hemochromatosis, chronic viral hepatitis B and C, exposure to asbestos fibers, as well as endometriosis have been recognized as iron overload-associated risks for human cancer. Indeed, iron is carcinogenic in animal experiments. These reports unexpectedly revealed that there are target genes in iron-induced carcinogenesis and that iron-catalyzed oxidative DNA damage is not random in vivo. Several iron transporters and hepcidin, a peptide hormone regulating iron metabolism, were discovered in the past decade. Furthermore, a recent epidemiological study reported that iron reduction by phlebotomy decreased cancer risk in the apparently normal population. These results warrant reconsideration of the role of iron in carcinogenesis and suggest that fine control of body iron stores would be a wise strategy for cancer prevention.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / physiology
  • Catalysis
  • DNA Damage
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Genes, p16
  • Hemochromatosis / complications
  • Hepcidins
  • Humans
  • Iron / physiology*
  • Iron Overload / complications
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control


  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides
  • HAMP protein, human
  • Hepcidins
  • Iron