Noscapine is a phthalideisoquinoline alkaloid, which represents a class of plant specialized metabolites within the large and structurally diverse group of benzylisoquinoline alkaloids. Along with the narcotic analgesic morphine, noscapine is a major alkaloid in the latex of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) that has long been used as a cough suppressant and has undergone extensive investigation as a potential anticancer drug. Cultivated opium poppy plants remain the only commercial source of noscapine. Despite its isolation from opium more than two centuries ago, the almost complete biosynthesis of noscapine has only recently been established based on an impressive combination of molecular genetics, functional genomics, and metabolic biochemistry. In this review, we provide a historical account of noscapine from its discovery through to initial investigations of its formation in opium poppy. We also describe recent breakthroughs that have led to an elucidation of the noscapine biosynthetic pathway, and we discuss the pharmacological properties that have prompted intensive evaluation of the potential pharmaceutical applications of noscapine and several semi-synthetic derivatives. Finally, we speculate on the future potential for the production of noscapine using metabolic engineering and synthetic biology in plants and microbes.
Keywords: Anticancer drugs; Benzylisoquinoline alkaloids; Cough suppressant; Noscapine; Phthalideisoquinoline alkaloids; Specialized metabolism.
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