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J Photochem Photobiol B. 2008 May 29;91(2-3):67-76. doi: 10.1016/j.jphotobiol.2008.01.011. Epub 2008 Feb 7.

Hypericin phototoxicity induces different modes of cell death in melanoma and human skin cells.

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Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town Observatory, 7925 Cape Town, South Africa.


Hypericin, the major component of St. John's Wort, absorbs light in the UV and visible ranges whereupon it becomes phototoxic through the production of reactive oxygen species. Although photodynamic mechanisms (i.e. through endogenous photosensitizers) play a role in UVA phototherapy for the treatment of skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, photodynamic therapy employing exogenous photosensitizers are currently being used only for the treatment of certain forms of non-melanoma skin cancers and actinic keratoses. There are few reports however on its use in treating melanomas. This in vitro study analyses the phototoxic effect of UVA (400-315 nm) - activated hypericin in human pigmented and unpigmented melanomas and immortalised keratinocytes and melanocytes. We show that neither hypericin exposure nor UV irradiation alone reduces cell viability. We show that an exposure to 1 microM UVA-activated hypericin does not bring about cell death, while 3 microM activated hypericin induces a necrotic mode of cell death in pigmented melanoma cells and melanocytes and an apoptotic mode of cell death in non-pigmented melanoma cells and keratinocytes. We hypothesis that the necrotic mode of cell death in the pigmented cells is possibly related to the presence of melanin-containing melanosomes in these cells and that the hypericin-induced increase in reactive oxygen species leads to an increase in permeability of melanosomes. This would result in toxic melanin precursors (of an indolic and phenolic nature) leaking into the cytoplasm which in turn leads to cell death. Hypericin localisation in the endoplasmic reticulum in these cells shown by fluorescent microscopy, further support a disruption in cellular processing and induction of cell death. In contrast, this study shows that cells that do not contain melanosomes (non-pigmented melanoma cells and keratinocytes) die by apoptosis. Further, using a mitochondrial-specific fluorescent dye, we show that intracellular accumulation of hypericin induces a mitochondrial-associated caspase-dependent apoptotic mode of cell death. This work suggests that UVA is effective in activating hypericin and that this phototoxicity may be considered as treatment option in some cases of lentigo maligna or lentigo maligna melanoma that are too large for surgical resection.

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