Engineered nanoparticles have been used to provide diagnostic, therapeutic and prognostic information about the status of disease. Nanoparticles developed for these purposes are typically modified with targeting ligands (such as antibodies, peptides or small molecules) or contrast agents using complicated processes and expensive reagents. Moreover, this approach can lead to an excess of ligands on the nanoparticle surface, and this causes non-specific binding and aggregation of nanoparticles, which decreases detection sensitivity. Here, we show that magnetoferritin nanoparticles (M-HFn) can be used to target and visualize tumour tissues without the use of any targeting ligands or contrast agents. Iron oxide nanoparticles are encapsulated inside a recombinant human heavy-chain ferritin (HFn) protein shell, which binds to tumour cells that overexpress transferrin receptor 1 (TfR1). The iron oxide core catalyses the oxidation of peroxidase substrates in the presence of hydrogen peroxide to produce a colour reaction that is used to visualize tumour tissues. We examined 474 clinical specimens from patients with nine types of cancer and verified that these nanoparticles can distinguish cancerous cells from normal cells with a sensitivity of 98% and specificity of 95%.