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Front Microbiol. 2012 Apr 23;3:130. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2012.00130. eCollection 2012.

Secondary Metabolites from Plants Inhibiting ABC Transporters and Reversing Resistance of Cancer Cells and Microbes to Cytotoxic and Antimicrobial Agents.

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  • 1Institute of Pharmacy and Molecular Biotechnology, Heidelberg University Heidelberg, Germany.


Fungal, bacterial, and cancer cells can develop resistance against antifungal, antibacterial, or anticancer agents. Mechanisms of resistance are complex and often multifactorial. Mechanisms include: (1) Activation of ATP-binding cassette (ABC) transporters, such as P-gp, which pump out lipophilic compounds that have entered a cell, (2) Activation of cytochrome p450 oxidases which can oxidize lipophilic agents to make them more hydrophilic and accessible for conjugation reaction with glucuronic acid, sulfate, or amino acids, and (3) Activation of glutathione transferase, which can conjugate xenobiotics. This review summarizes the evidence that secondary metabolites (SM) of plants, such as alkaloids, phenolics, and terpenoids can interfere with ABC transporters in cancer cells, parasites, bacteria, and fungi. Among the active natural products several lipophilic terpenoids [monoterpenes, diterpenes, triterpenes (including saponins), steroids (including cardiac glycosides), and tetraterpenes] but also some alkaloids (isoquinoline, protoberberine, quinoline, indole, monoterpene indole, and steroidal alkaloids) function probably as competitive inhibitors of P-gp, multiple resistance-associated protein 1, and Breast cancer resistance protein in cancer cells, or efflux pumps in bacteria (NorA) and fungi. More polar phenolics (phenolic acids, flavonoids, catechins, chalcones, xanthones, stilbenes, anthocyanins, tannins, anthraquinones, and naphthoquinones) directly inhibit proteins forming several hydrogen and ionic bonds and thus disturbing the 3D structure of the transporters. The natural products may be interesting in medicine or agriculture as they can enhance the activity of active chemotherapeutics or pesticides or even reverse multidrug resistance, at least partially, of adapted and resistant cells. If these SM are applied in combination with a cytotoxic or antimicrobial agent, they may reverse resistance in a synergistic fashion.


ABC transporter; MDR; MRP1; P-gp; review; secondary metabolites

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