Haem iron intake and risk of lung cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort



Epidemiological studies suggest that haem iron, which is found predominantly in red meat and increases endogenous formation of carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds, may be positively associated with lung cancer. The objective was to examine the relationship between haem iron intake and lung cancer risk using detailed smoking history data and serum cotinine to control for potential confounding.


In the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), 416,746 individuals from 10 countries completed demographic and dietary questionnaires at recruitment. Cox proportional hazards models were used to estimate hazard ratios (HRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for incident lung cancer (n = 3731) risk relative to haem iron, non-haem iron, and total dietary iron intake. A corresponding analysis was conducted among a nested subset of 800 lung cancer cases and 1489 matched controls for whom serum cotinine was available.


Haem iron was associated with lung cancer risk, including after adjustment for details of smoking history (time since quitting, number of cigarettes per day): as a continuous variable (HR per 0.3 mg/1000 kcal 1.03, 95% CI 1.00–1.07), and in the highest versus lowest quintile (HR 1.16, 95% CI 1.02–1.32; trend across quintiles: P = 0.035). In contrast, non-haem iron intake was related inversely with lung cancer risk; however, this association attenuated after adjustment for smoking history. Additional adjustment for serum cotinine did not considerably alter the associations detected in the nested case–control subset.


Greater haem iron intake may be modestly associated with lung cancer risk.

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The coordination of EPIC is financially supported by the European Commission (DG-SANCO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The national cohorts are supported by Danish Cancer Society (Denmark); Ligue Contre le Cancer, Institut Gustave Roussy, Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale, Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) (France); German Cancer Aid, German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ), Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), Deutsche Krebshilfe, Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum and Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Germany); the Hellenic Health Foundation (Greece); Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sul Cancro-AIRC-Italy and National Research Council (Italy); Dutch Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sports (VWS), Netherlands Cancer Registry (NKR), LK Research Funds, Dutch Prevention Funds, Dutch ZON (Zorg Onderzoek Nederland), World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), Statistics Netherlands (The Netherlands); ERC-2009-AdG 232997 and Nordforsk, Nordic Centre of Excellence programme on Food, Nutrition and Health (Norway); Health Research Fund (FIS), PI13/00061 to Granada, PI13/01162 to EPIC-Murcia, Regional Governments of Andalucía, Asturias, Basque Country, Murcia ((no. 6236) and Navarra, ISCIII RETIC (RD06/0020) (Spain); Swedish Cancer Society, Swedish Research Council and County Councils of Skåne and Västerbotten (Sweden); Cancer Research UK (14136 to K.T. Khaw, N.J. Wareham; C570/A16491 to RCT and C8221/A19170 to T. Key (EPIC-Oxford), Medical Research Council (1000143 to K.T. Khaw, N.J. Wareham, MR/M012190/1 to T. Key (EPIC-Oxford)) (United Kingdom).

Author Contributions

AJC originated the idea. AJC was responsible for the study design and data management. HW was responsible for the statistical analysis. AJC, HW and JW drafted the first version of the manuscript, contributed to interpretation of results and revised the manuscript critically for important intellectual content. All listed EPIC co-authors contributed data and reviewed the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Heather A. Ward.

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