Lectins as bioactive plant proteins: a potential in cancer treatment

Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2005;45(6):425-45. doi: 10.1080/10408390591034445.


Plant lectins, a unique group of proteins and glycoproteins with potent biological activity, occur in foods like wheat, corn, tomato, peanut, kidney bean, banana, pea, lentil, soybean, mushroom, rice, and potato. Thus, dietary intakes by humans can be significant. Many lectins resist digestion, survive gut passage, and bind to gastrointestinal cells and/or enter the circulation intact, maintaining full biological activity. Several lectins have been found to possess anticancer properties in vitro, in vivo, and in human case studies; they are used as therapeutic agents, preferentially binding to cancer cell membranes or their receptors, causing cytotoxicity, apoptosis, and inhibition of tumor growth. These compounds can become internalized into cells, causing cancer cell agglutination and/or aggregation. Ingestion of lectins also sequesters the available body pool of polyamines, thereby thwarting cancer cell growth. They also affect the immune system by altering the production of various interleukins, or by activating certain protein kinases. Lectins can bind to ribosomes and inhibit protein synthesis. They also modify the cell cycle by inducing non-apoptotic G1-phase accumulation mechanisms, G2/M phase cell cycle arrest and apoptosis, and can activate the caspase cascade. Lectins can also downregulate telomerase activity and inhibit angiogenesis. Although lectins seem to have great potential as anticancer agents, further research is still needed and should include a genomic and proteomic approach.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dietary Proteins*
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Mice
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Nutritive Value
  • Plant Lectins*
  • Plant Proteins*


  • Dietary Proteins
  • Plant Lectins
  • Plant Proteins