Silymarin and Cancer: A Dual Strategy in Both in Chemoprevention and Chemosensitivity

Molecules. 2020 Apr 25;25(9):2009. doi: 10.3390/molecules25092009.


Silymarin extracted from milk thistle consisting of flavonolignan silybin has shown chemopreventive and chemosensitizing activity against various cancers. The present review summarizes the current knowledge on the potential targets of silymarin against various cancers. Silymarin may play on the system of xenobiotics, metabolizing enzymes (phase I and phase II) to protect normal cells against various toxic molecules or to protect against deleterious effects of chemotherapeutic agents on normal cells. Furthermore, silymarin and its main bioactive compounds inhibit organic anion transporters (OAT) and ATP-binding cassettes (ABC) transporters, thus contributing to counteracting potential chemoresistance. Silymarin and its derivatives play a double role, namely, limiting the progression of cancer cells through different phases of the cycle-thus forcing them to evolve towards a process of cell death-and accumulating cancer cells in a phase of the cell cycle-thus making it possible to target a greater number of tumor cells with a specific anticancer agent. Silymarin exerts a chemopreventive effect by inducing intrinsic and extrinsic pathways and reactivating cell death pathways by modulation of the ratio of proapoptotic/antiapoptotic proteins and synergizing with agonists of death domains receptors. In summary, we highlight how silymarin may act as a chemopreventive agent and a chemosensitizer through multiple pathways.

Keywords: ABC transporter; cell cycle; chemopreventive; chemosensitizer; intrinsic and extrinsic pathway; metabolizing enzymes; silybin; silymarin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / genetics
  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters / metabolism
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Cell Cycle / drug effects
  • Cell Cycle / genetics
  • Cell Cycle Checkpoints / genetics
  • Chemoprevention*
  • Drug Resistance, Neoplasm / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Protective Agents / pharmacology*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Silymarin / pharmacology*


  • ATP-Binding Cassette Transporters
  • Protective Agents
  • Silymarin