This is why red meat increases the risk of disease – Naturopathy & Naturopathic Treatment Portal

Eating too much red meat increases the risk of colon cancer. Heme iron is suspected to be responsible for the carcinogenic effect. Researchers have now successfully described the toxic effects of heme iron in healthy intestinal cells. (Image: Zerbor /

Tracking down the development of colon cancer

Scientific research has shown that certain factors can increase the risk of developing colon cancer. These include sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Frequent consumption of red meat also increases the risk of colon cancer. Researchers have now gained new insight into why this is so.

It has long been known that excessive consumption of red meat increases the risk of developing colon cancer. As the Technical University (TU) Kaiserslautern writes in a press release, the organic compound “heme iron” is suspected to be responsible for the cancer promoting effect. A research team from the university has now succeeded in describing the toxic effects of heme iron in healthy intestinal cells.

Eating red meat is a risk factor

Colon cancer is one of the three most common types of cancer in the world, according to experts. Lately, there has been a steady rise in new diseases, especially among young people and middle-aged people between 20 and 50 years old. This is mainly associated with changes in eating habits – including excessive consumption of red meat. Frequent consumption of red or processed meat, along with tobacco consumption, obesity, lack of exercise, a low-fiber diet and frequent alcohol consumption, is one of the most important risk factors , explains the Center for Cancer Registry Data (ZfKD) at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).

To understand the role of heme iron in this context, a research team led by Professor Jörg Driver of Food Chemistry and Toxicology at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern and the Institute of Toxicology at the University Medical Center Mainz has examined the effects of organic iron compounds on healthy intestinal cells and degenerated colon cancer cells analyzed. They also studied how organic heme iron differs from inorganic forms of iron such as iron chloride in terms of possible toxic effects.

The results of the study, which was carried out in collaboration with scientists from the University of Constance and the University of Potsdam and financially supported by the German Research Foundation, were recently published in the journal “Cell Death & Disease “.

Damage to genetic material

First, the researchers were able to show that heme iron at physiologically relevant concentrations, such as those that can occur in our intestines, promotes the formation of reactive oxygen species and damages our genetic material, DNA. . “These effects were only slightly pronounced with inorganic iron compounds,” explains Dr. Nina Seiwert, lead author of the study and postdoc in the drivers’ working group. For example, heme iron, but not inorganic iron, led to the death of normal intestinal cells, which could also be confirmed in so-called organoids from healthy intestinal tissue.

“It’s like a mini-organ that grows embedded in culture dishes in a matrix with a special nutrient medium,” says Dr. Worth It. Interestingly, colon cancer cells showed lower sensitivity to heme iron and survived despite damage.

Subsequently, the scientists looked for the response at the cellular level and were able to show that heme iron activates a cellular sensor for oxidative stress and that the HO-1 enzyme is thus produced in the intestinal cells. “HO-1 is responsible for breaking down heme iron into inorganic iron and other products,” says Professor Driver. To learn more about the role of HO-1, the researchers used pharmacological and molecular genetics methods. If HO-1 production was deactivated as a result, the concentration of reactive oxygen species increased sharply, leading to increased oxidative damage to DNA and ultimately cell death.

“Taken together, these results show that free heme iron has a toxic effect on cells and that HO-1 has a very important protective function,” says Professor Driver. At the end of the communication, the study makes an important contribution to understanding the toxic effects of heme iron in intestinal cells and shows how it can promote the development of colon cancer as a component of red meat. (a d)

Author and source information

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This text complies with the requirements of specialized medical literature, medical directives and ongoing studies and has been verified by healthcare professionals.


Technical University of Kaiserslautern: Tracking the Development of Colon Cancer: How Heme Iron in Red Meat Damages Healthy Gut Cells, (accessed October 13, 2020), Technical University of Kaiserslautern Nina Seiwert, Sabine Wecklein, Philipp Demuth, Solveig Hasselwander , Talke A. Kemper, Tanja Schwerdtle, Thomas Brunner & Jörg Driver: Heme oxygenase 1 protects human colonocytes against ROS formation, oxidative DNA damage and cytotoxicity induced by heme iron, but not iron inorganic; in: Cell Death & Disease, (published: 23.09.2020), Cell Death & Disease Center for Cancer Registry Data: Colon Cancer, (consulted on 13.10.2020), Center for Cancer Registry Data

Important note:
This article is provided for informational purposes only and should not be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. It cannot replace a visit to the doctor.