Iron-induced carcinogenesis: the role of redox regulation

Free Radic Biol Med. 1996;20(4):553-66. doi: 10.1016/0891-5849(95)02111-6.


Redox cycling is a characteristic of transition metals such as iron. Iron is hypothesized to have been actively involved in the birth of primitive life on earth through the generation of reducing equivalents in the presence of UV light. Iron is an essential metal in mammals for oxygen transport by hemoglobin and for the function of many enzymes including catalase and cytochromes. However, the "free" or "catalytic" form of iron mediates the production of reactive oxygen species via the Fenton reaction and induces oxidative stress. Serum "free" iron is observed in rare situations such as in severe hemochromatosis in which serum transferrin is saturated. However, it is known that superoxide can release "free" iron from ferritin and hemosiderin in the cell. "Free" iron is quite cytotoxic as well as mutagenic and carcinogenic. Iron compounds were first reported to induce sarcomas in rats by Richmond in 1959. Thereafter, several iron-induced carcinogenesis models were established, including the ferric nitrilotriacetate model by Okada and colleagues. Iron may have a role in the carcinogenic process of other transition metals such as copper and nickel, or other kinds of carcinogens such as nitrosamine and even virus-induced carcinogenesis. In humans, genetic hemochromatosis and asbestosis are two major diseases associated with iron-induced carcinogenesis. There is an increasing number of reports of an association between increased body iron stores and increased risk of cancer. Iron-induced oxidative stress results in two possible consequences: (1) redox regulation failure that leads to lipid peroxidation and oxidative DNA and protein damage; (2) redox regulation that activates a variety of reducing and oxystress-protective mechanisms via signal transduction. Both consequences appear to play a role in iron-induced carcinogenesis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogens / toxicity*
  • Humans
  • Iron / toxicity*
  • Metals / toxicity
  • Oxidation-Reduction


  • Carcinogens
  • Metals
  • Iron