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Pharmazie. 2002 May;57(5):323-31.

Aqueous ethanolic extract of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum L.) induces growth inhibition and apoptosis in human malignant cells in vitro.

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Department of Internal Medicine, University Hospital Z├╝rich, Switzerland.


Extracts of Hypericum perforatum (St. John's wort) are widely and effectively used in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. In addition, hypericin, a component of Hypericum p. extracts, exhibits light-dependent phototoxic properties and can be used in phototherapy. We therefore investigated the cytotoxic activity of two total Hypericum p. extracts, namely from fresh and dried plants in the dark and after exposure to 7.5 J/cm2 white light illumination and compared it with the effect of hypericin on K562, U937, LN229 glioblastoma cell lines and normal human astrocytes. The chemical toxicity of non-illuminated Hypericum p. extracts in the cells tested is low as expressed by a LC50 between 1.9-4.1 mg/ml, which corresponds to 10.3-17.3 microM hypericin and 114.4-190.7 microM hyperforin after 48 h treatment. Hypericum p. extracts induced dose-dependent growth arrest of human malignant cells in the absence of illumination with GI50 values between 0.43-1.77 mg/ml (2.3-9.7 microM hypericin, 26.1-106.7 microM hyperforin) for the fresh plant extract and 0.59-3.03 mg/ml (2.5-12.8 microM hypericin, 24.2-124.7 microM hyperforin) for the dried extract. The growth inhibitory effect of fresh Hypericum p. extract was more pronounced in leukemia cell lines K562 and U937, the GI50 concentrations being about 7-fold lower than the corresponding LC50 for the cell lines K562 and U937, but almost the same as the LC50 for LN229 and NHA cells. GI50 (microgram/ml) for tumor cell lines K562 and U937 (432 and 799) established after 48 h differed significantly (p < 0.05) from those of LN229 and normal human astrocytes (1767 and 2900). The light-exposed extracts were more toxic, their LC50 and GI50 values were reduced to values corresponding to LC50 concentration of 3.7-7.4 microM and a GI50 of 1.3-3.5 microM for phototoxic hypericin. After exposure to light, there was a significant difference (p = 0.006) between the GI50 of glioblastoma LN229 cells (582 micrograms/ml) and normal human astrocytes (1050 micrograms/ml). Morphological examination by light microscopy and phosphaditylserine exposure on the outer plasma membrane investigated by Annexin V-binding with flow cytometry after 24 h confirmed that Hypericum p. extracts caused apoptosis of treated cells without exposure to light. Hypericum p. extracts derived from fresh herbs and from dried herbs which differ in their levels of phloroglucinols (hyperforin and adhyperforin) were compared. The hyperforin content of fresh St. John's wort extract exceeded that of dried plant extract by 47% and the GI50 values of fresh plant extract were 73%, 77% and 58% of those established for dried extract in the three malignant cell lines K562, U937 and LN229 in the dark (p < 0.05). Under white light (7.5 J/cm2), both extracts exerted comparable growth inhibitory and apoptosis inducing effects due to the phototoxicity of hypericin, the corresponding concentrations of which were in the range of 1.3-3.5 microM. The data reported in this study suggest that illumination is not essential for the growth inhibitory and apoptotic effects of Hypericum p. extracts, but light activation potentiates them. Furthermore, the constituent hyperforin is at least partly responsible for these effects in the dark.

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