Cytotoxic activity of medicinal plants of the Kakamega County (Kenya) against drug-sensitive and multidrug-resistant cancer cells

J Ethnopharmacol. 2018 Apr 6:215:233-240. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2018.01.004. Epub 2018 Jan 5.


Ethnopharmacological relevance: The geographical location of Kakamega County proximal to the Kakamega Rain Forest in Kenya and its rich flora represents an interesting resource of traditional medicinal plants. The medicinal plants in the present study are traditionally used to treat cancer in Kakamega County as recorded in published literature.

Aim of the study: Due to multidrug resistance (MDR) and severe side effects of currently used drugs in clinical oncology, new candidate compounds are urgently required to improve treatment outcome. The present study explored the in vitro cytotoxic potential of 34 organic and 19 aqueous extracts of Kakamega medicinal plants towards sensitive and multidrug-resistant cancer cell lines.

Methods and results: The cytotoxicity was determined using the resazurin assay. Eight organic and two aqueous plant extracts inhibited the growth of CCRF-CEM leukemia cells by more than 50%. The organic extracts were Harungana madagascariensis Lam. ex poir (6.6% of untreated control), Prunus africana (Hook.f.) Kalkman (19.4%), Entada abyssinica Steud. ex A. Rich (38.6%), Phyllanthus fischeri Pax (40.7%), Shirakiopsis elliptica (Hochst.) Esser Synonym: Sapium ellipticum (Hochst. kraus) Pax (41.8%), Bridelia micrantha (Hochst.) Baill (45.4%) and Futumia africana Benth. (45.8%) and Microglossa pyrifolia (Lam.) Kuntze (48%). The aqueous extracts were Bridelia micrantha (Hochst.) Baill (31.3%) and Shirakiopsis elliptica (Hochst.) Esser Synonym: Sapium ellipticum (Hochst. Kraus) Pax (48.2%). In addition to P-glycoprotein-expressing tumor cells, we also investigated other mechanisms of drug resistance, i.e. BCRP- or EGFR-transfected and TP53-knockout tumor cells. Some extracts also showed considerable cytotoxic activity against these drug-resistant cell lines. As demonstrated for selected examples, some extracts exhibited enhanced cytotoxicity towards cancer cells, if applied in combination with other extracts.

Discussion: The panel of medicinal plants used in the Kakamega County for cancer treatment revealed indeed cytotoxicity to various extent towards cancer cells in vitro. Hence, our results may at least in part substantiate the traditional use of these compounds to treat cancer. Even more interesting, several extracts inhibited otherwise drug-resistant tumor cell lines with similar or even better efficacy than their drug-sensitive counterparts. This provides an attractive perspective for further exploration of their anticancer potential to combat drug resistance of refractory tumors.

Keywords: Drug resistance; Medicinal plants; Oncogene; Pharmacognosy; Tumor suppressor.

MeSH terms

  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1 / genetics
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1 / metabolism
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily G, Member 2 / genetics
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily G, Member 2 / metabolism
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / chemistry
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / pharmacology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Survival / drug effects*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm*
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • ErbB Receptors / genetics
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Inhibitory Concentration 50
  • Medicine, African Traditional
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism
  • Oxazines / metabolism
  • Plants, Medicinal / chemistry*
  • Xanthenes / metabolism


  • ABCG2 protein, human
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily B, Member 1
  • ATP Binding Cassette Transporter, Subfamily G, Member 2
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Oxazines
  • Xanthenes
  • resazurin
  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors