Overview of major classes of plant-derived anticancer drugs

Int J Biomed Sci. 2009 Mar;5(1):1-11.


Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide. Conventional cancer therapies cause serious side effects and, at best, merely extend the patient's lifespan by a few years. Cancer control may therefore benefit from the potential that resides in alternative therapies. The demand to utilize alternative concepts or approaches to the treatment of cancer is therefore escalating. There is compelling evidence from epidemiological and experimental studies that highlight the importance of compounds derived from plants "phytochemicals" to reduce the risk of colon cancer and inhibit the development and spread of tumors in experimental animals. More than 25% of drugs used during the last 20 years are directly derived from plants, while the other 25% are chemically altered natural products. Still, only 5-15% of the approximately 250,000 higher plants have ever been investigated for bioactive compounds. The advantage of using such compounds for cancer treatment is their relatively non-toxic nature and availability in an ingestive form. An ideal phytochemical is one that possesses anti-tumor properties with minimal toxicity and has a defined mechanism of action. As compounds that target specific signaling pathways are identified, researchers can envisage novel therapeutic approaches as well as a better understanding of the pathways involved in disease progression. Here, we focus on 4 classes of natural anticancer drugs: methyltransferase inhibitors, DNA damaging/pro-oxidant drugs, HDAC inhibitors (HDACi), and mitotic disrupters, and we will focus on the mode of action for one promising example per group.

Keywords: EGCG; cancer; paclitaxel; pomiferin; sulforaphane; thymoquinone.