Echinacea is one of the most widely used alternative medicine in the world. Intake of Echinacea preparations is common among patients with advanced malignancies enrolled onto phase I chemotherapy trials; however, to our knowledge, no data are available regarding the possible direct effect of Echinacea species on human cancer cells. The purpose of the present study was to investigate potential in vitro cytotoxic and pro-apoptotic properties of hexanic root extract of the three medicinal Echinacea (Asteraceae) species (Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) Nutt., Echinacea angustifolia DC. var. angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench.) on the human pancreatic cancer MIA PaCa-2 and colon cancer COLO320 cell lines. We demonstrated, for the first time, that all the three species reduced cell viability in a concentration- and time-dependent manner; Echinacea pallida was the most active species with IC(50)s of 46.41+/-0.87 and 10.55+/-0.70 microg/ml in MIA PaCa-2 and COLO320 cells, respectively. Echinacea pallida extract was able to induce apoptosis by increasing significantly caspase 3/7 activity and promoting nuclear DNA fragmentation. These results represent the starting point to establish viable scientific evidence on the possible role of Echinacea species in medical oncology.