Promise of bitter melon (Momordica charantia) bioactives in cancer prevention and therapy

Semin Cancer Biol. 2016 Oct;40-41:116-129. doi: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2016.07.002. Epub 2016 Jul 21.


Recently, there is a paradigm shift that the whole food-derived components are not 'idle bystanders' but actively participate in modulating aberrant metabolic and signaling pathways in both healthy and diseased individuals. One such whole food from Cucurbitaceae family is 'bitter melon' (Momordica charantia, also called bitter gourd, balsam apple, etc.), which has gained an enormous attention in recent years as an alternative medicine in developed countries. The increased focus on bitter melon consumption could in part be due to several recent pre-clinical efficacy studies demonstrating bitter melon potential to target obesity/type II diabetes-associated metabolic aberrations as well as its pre-clinical anti-cancer efficacy against various malignancies. The bioassay-guided fractionations have also classified the bitter melon chemical constituents based on their anti-diabetic or cytotoxic effects. Thus, by definition, these bitter melon constituents are at cross roads on the bioactivity parameters; they either have selective efficacy for correcting metabolic aberrations or targeting cancer cells, or have beneficial effects in both conditions. However, given the vast, though dispersed, literature reports on the bioactivity and beneficial attributes of bitter melon constituents, a comprehensive review on the bitter melon components and the overlapping beneficial attributes is lacking; our review attempts to fulfill these unmet needs. Importantly, the recent realization that there are common risk factors associated with obesity/type II diabetes-associated metabolic aberrations and cancer, this timely review focuses on the dual efficacy of bitter melon against the risk factors associated with both diseases that could potentially impact the course of malignancy to advanced stages. Furthermore, this review also addresses a significant gap in our knowledge regarding the bitter melon drug-drug interactions which can be predicted from the available reports on bitter melon effects on metabolism enzymes and drug transporters. This has important implications, given that a large proportion of individuals, taking bitter melon based supplements/phytochemical extracts/food based home-remedies, are also likely to be taking conventional therapeutic drugs at the same time. Accordingly, the comprehensively reviewed information here could be prudently translated to the clinical implications associated with any potential concerns regarding bitter melon consumption by cancer patients.

Keywords: Bitter gourd; Bitter melon; Cancer chemoprevention; Momordica charantia; Phytochemicals.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / pharmacology*
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / therapeutic use
  • Drug Screening Assays, Antitumor
  • Humans
  • Momordica charantia / chemistry*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Plant Extracts / pharmacology*
  • Plant Extracts / therapeutic use


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic
  • Plant Extracts