A central role for heme iron in colon carcinogenesis associated with red meat intake

Cancer Res. 2015 Mar 1;75(5):870-9. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-14-2554. Epub 2015 Jan 15.


Epidemiology shows that red and processed meat intake is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Heme iron, heterocyclic amines, and endogenous N-nitroso compounds (NOC) are proposed to explain this effect, but their relative contribution is unknown. Our study aimed at determining, at nutritional doses, which is the main factor involved and proposing a mechanism of cancer promotion by red meat. The relative part of heme iron (1% in diet), heterocyclic amines (PhIP + MeIQx, 50 + 25 μg/kg in diet), and NOC (induced by NaNO₂+ NaNO₂; 0.17 + 0.23 g/L of drinking water) was determined by a factorial design and preneoplastic endpoints in chemically induced rats and validated on tumors in Min mice. The molecular mechanisms (genotoxicity, cytotoxicity) were analyzed in vitro in normal and Apc-deficient cell lines and confirmed on colon mucosa. Heme iron increased the number of preneoplastic lesions, but dietary heterocyclic amines and NOC had no effect on carcinogenesis in rats. Dietary hemoglobin increased tumor load in Min mice (control diet: 67 ± 39 mm²; 2.5% hemoglobin diet: 114 ± 47 mm², P = 0.004). In vitro, fecal water from rats given hemoglobin was rich in aldehydes and was cytotoxic to normal cells, but not to premalignant cells. The aldehydes 4-hydroxynonenal and 4-hydroxyhexenal were more toxic to normal versus mutated cells and were only genotoxic to normal cells. Genotoxicity was also observed in colon mucosa of mice given hemoglobin. These results highlight the role of heme iron in the promotion of colon cancer by red meat and suggest that heme iron could initiate carcinogenesis through lipid peroxidation. .

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogenesis
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Colonic Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Colonic Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Heme / metabolism*
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Meat / adverse effects*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred F344
  • Risk Factors


  • Heme
  • Iron