Redox- and non-redox-metal-induced formation of free radicals and their role in human disease

Arch Toxicol. 2016 Jan;90(1):1-37. doi: 10.1007/s00204-015-1579-5. Epub 2015 Sep 7.


Transition metal ions are key elements of various biological processes ranging from oxygen formation to hypoxia sensing, and therefore, their homeostasis is maintained within strict limits through tightly regulated mechanisms of uptake, storage and secretion. The breakdown of metal ion homeostasis can lead to an uncontrolled formation of reactive oxygen species, ROS (via the Fenton reaction, which produces hydroxyl radicals), and reactive nitrogen species, RNS, which may cause oxidative damage to biological macromolecules such as DNA, proteins and lipids. An imbalance between the formation of free radicals and their elimination by antioxidant defense systems is termed oxidative stress. Most vulnerable to free radical attack is the cell membrane which may undergo enhanced lipid peroxidation, finally producing mutagenic and carcinogenic malondialdehyde and 4-hydroxynonenal and other exocyclic DNA adducts. While redox-active iron (Fe) and copper (Cu) undergo redox-cycling reactions, for a second group of redox-inactive metals such as arsenic (As) and cadmium (Cd), the primary route for their toxicity is depletion of glutathione and bonding to sulfhydryl groups of proteins. While arsenic is known to bind directly to critical thiols, other mechanisms, involving formation of hydrogen peroxide under physiological conditions, have been proposed. Redox-inert zinc (Zn) is the most abundant metal in the brain and an essential component of numerous proteins involved in biological defense mechanisms against oxidative stress. The depletion of zinc may enhance DNA damage by impairing DNA repair mechanisms. Intoxication of an organism by arsenic and cadmium may lead to metabolic disturbances of redox-active copper and iron, with the occurrence of oxidative stress induced by the enhanced formation of ROS/RNS. Oxidative stress occurs when excessive formation of ROS overwhelms the antioxidant defense system, as is maintained by antioxidants such as ascorbic acid, alpha-tocopherol, glutathione (GSH), carotenoids, flavonoids and antioxidant enzymes which include SOD, catalase and glutathione peroxidase. This review summarizes current views regarding the role of redox-active/inactive metal-induced formation of ROS, and modifications to biomolecules in human disease such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, renal disease, blood disorders and other disease. The involvement of metals in DNA repair mechanisms, tumor suppressor functions and interference with signal transduction pathways are also discussed.

Keywords: Human disease; Metals; Oxidative stress; Reactive oxygen species; Toxicity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Damage / drug effects
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Disease*
  • Free Radicals / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Lipid Peroxidation / drug effects
  • Metals / chemistry
  • Metals / metabolism
  • Metals / toxicity*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects*
  • Risk Factors
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects


  • Free Radicals
  • Metals