Plant sources of anti-cancer agents

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Extracts from Camptotheca (the "happy tree" or "cancer tree") were used to develop the chemotherapeutic drug Topotecan

Plant sources of anti-cancer agents are plants, the derivatives of which have been shown to be usable for the treatment or prevention of cancer in humans.[1][2]


In the 1950s, scientists began systematically examining natural organisms as a source of useful anti-cancer substances.[1] It has recently been argued that "the use of natural products has been the single most successful strategy in the discovery of novel medicines".[3]

Plants need to defend themselves from attack by micro-organisms, in particular fungi, and they do this by producing anti-fungal chemicals that are toxic to fungi. Because fungal and human cells are similar at a biochemical level it is often the case that chemical compounds intended for plant defence have an inhibitory effect on human cells, including human cancer cells.[4] Those plant chemicals that are selectively more toxic to cancer cells than normal cells have been discovered in screening programs and developed as chemotherapy drugs[5]

Research and development process[edit]

Some plants that indicate potential as an anticancer agent in laboratory-based in vitro research – for example, Typhonium flagelliforme,[6] and Murraya koenigii[7] are currently being studied. There can be many years between promising laboratory work and the availability of an effective anti-cancer drug: Monroe Eliot Wall discovered anti-cancer properties in Camptotheca in 1958, but it was not until 1996 – after further research and rounds of clinical trials – that topotecan, a synthetic derivative of a chemical in the plant, was approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration.[8]


Camptotheca acuminata

The cancer treatment drug topotecan is a synthetic chemical compound similar in chemical structure to camptothecin which is found in extracts of Camptotheca (happy tree).[8]

Catharanthus roseus

Vinca alkaloids were originally manufactured by extracting them from Catharanthus (Madagascar Periwinkle).[1]

Podophyllum spp.

Two chemotherapy drugs, etoposide and teniposide, are synthetic chemical compounds similar in chemical structure to the toxin podophyllotoxin which is found in Podophyllum peltatum (May Apple).[1]

Taxus brevifolia

Chemicals extracted from clippings of Taxus brevifolia (Pacific yew) have been used as the basis for two chemotherapy drugs, docetaxel and paclitaxel.[9]

Euphobia peplus

Contains ingenol mebutate (Picato) which is used to treat skin cancer[10]

Maytenus ovatus

Trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla) is an antibody conjugated to a synthetic derivative of the cytotoxic principle of the Ethiopian plant Maytenus ovatus. It used to treat breast cancer.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Cragg, Gordon M.; Newman, David J. (2005). "Plants as a source of anti-cancer agents" (PDF). Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 100 (1–2): 72–9. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2005.05.011. PMID 16009521.
  2. ^ Shoeb, Mohammad (2008). "Anticancer agents from medicinal plants". Bangladesh Journal of Pharmacology. 1 (2). doi:10.3329/bjp.v1i2.486.
  3. ^ Tulp, Martin; Bohlin, Lars (2002). "Functional versus chemical diversity: Is biodiversity important for drug discovery?". Trends in Pharmacological Sciences. 23 (5): 225–31. doi:10.1016/S0165-6147(02)02007-2. PMID 12008000.
  4. ^ Cardenas, ME; Cruz, MC; Del Poeta, M; Chung, N; Perfect, JR; Heitman, J (1999). "Antifungal activities of antineoplastic agents: Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a model system to study drug action". Clin. Microbiol. Rev. 12: 583–611. PMC 88926. PMID 10515904.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Mohan, S.; Bustamam, A.; Ibrahim, S.; s. Al-Zubairi, A.; Aspollah, M. (2008). "Anticancerous Effect of Typhonium flagelliforme on Human T4-Lymphoblastoid Cell Line CEM-ss". Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology. 3 (6): 449–456. doi:10.3923/jpt.2008.449.456.
  7. ^ Syam, Suvitha; Abdul, Ahmad Bustamam; Sukari, Mohd. Aspollah; Mohan, Syam; Abdelwahab, Siddig Ibrahim; Wah, Tang Sook (2011). "The Growth Suppressing Effects of Girinimbine on Hepg2 Involve Induction of Apoptosis and Cell Cycle Arrest". Molecules. 16 (8): 7155–70. doi:10.3390/molecules16087155. PMC 6264672. PMID 21862957.
  8. ^ a b "Topotecan (NSC 609699)". National Cancer Institute. Retrieved August 2013. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  9. ^ "Yew clippings to make chemotherapy". Cancer Research UK. Retrieved August 2013. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  10. ^ Zarchi, K; Jemec, G. B. (2015). "Actinic Keratosis". Current Problems in Dermatology. Current Problems in Dermatology. 46: 136–42. doi:10.1159/000366549. ISBN 978-3-318-02762-4. PMID 25561218. |chapter= ignored (help)
  11. ^ Peddi, P. F.; Hurvitz, S. A. (2014). "Ado-trastuzumab emtansine (T-DM1) in human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)-positive metastatic breast cancer: Latest evidence and clinical potential". Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology. 6 (5): 202–209. doi:10.1177/1758834014539183. PMC 4206612. PMID 25342987.

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