The role of iron in cancer

Eur J Cancer Prev. 1996 Feb;5(1):19-36.


Numerous laboratory and clinical investigations over the past few decades have observed that one of the dangers of iron is its ability to favour neoplastic cell growth. The metal is carcinogenic due to its catalytic effect on the formation of hydroxyl radicals, suppression of the activity of host defence cells and promotion of cancer cell multiplication. In both animals and humans, primary neoplasms develop at body sites of excessive iron deposits. The invaded host attempts to withhold iron from the cancer cells via sequestration of the metal in newly formed ferritin. The host also endeavours to withdraw the metal from cancer cells via macrophage synthesis of nitric oxide. Quantitative evaluation of body iron and of iron-withholding proteins has prognostic value in cancer patients. Procedures associated with lowering host iron intake and inducing host cell iron efflux can assist in prevention and management of neoplastic diseases. Pharmaceutical methods for depriving neoplastic cells of iron are being developed in experimental and clinical protocols.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogens / adverse effects
  • Carrier Proteins / analysis
  • Cell Division / drug effects
  • Ferritins / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Hydroxyl Radical / metabolism
  • Immunity, Cellular / drug effects
  • Iron / adverse effects
  • Iron / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Iron / metabolism
  • Iron / physiology*
  • Iron-Binding Proteins
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / etiology
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / pathology
  • Neoplasms, Experimental / prevention & control
  • Nitric Oxide / biosynthesis
  • Receptors, Transferrin / analysis
  • Transferrin-Binding Proteins


  • Carcinogens
  • Carrier Proteins
  • Iron-Binding Proteins
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin-Binding Proteins
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Hydroxyl Radical
  • Ferritins
  • Iron