Iron and thiols as two major players in carcinogenesis: Friends or foes?

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Iron is the most abundant metal in the human body and mainly works as a cofactor for proteins such as hemoglobin and various enzymes. No independent life forms on earth can survive without iron. However, excess iron is intimately associated with carcinogenesis by increasing oxidative stress via its catalytic activity to generate hydroxyl radicals. Biomolecules with redox-active sulfhydryl function(s) (thiol compounds) are necessary for the maintenance of mildly reductive cellular environments to counteract oxidative stress, and for the execution of redox reactions for metabolism and detoxification. Involvement of glutathione S-transferase and thioredoxin has long attracted the attention of cancer researchers. Here, I update recent findings on the involvement of iron and thiol compounds during carcinogenesis and in cancer cells. It is now recognized that the cystine/glutamate transporter (antiporter) is intimately associated with ferroptosis, an iron-dependent, non-apoptotic form of cell death, observed in cancer cells, and also with cancer stem cells; the former with transporter blockage but the latter with its stabilization. Excess iron in the presence of oxygen appears the most common known mutagen. Ironically, the persistent activation of antioxidant systems via genetic alterations in Nrf2 and Keap1 also contributes to carcinogenesis. Therefore, it is difficult to conclude the role of iron and thiol compounds as friends or foes, which depends on the quantity/distribution and induction/flexibility, respectively. Avoiding further mutation would be the most helpful strategy for cancer prevention, and myriad of efforts are being made to sort out the weaknesses of cancer cells.




Toyokuni, S. (2014). Iron and thiols as two major players in carcinogenesis: Friends or foes? Frontiers in Pharmacology, 5 AUG.

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