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J Ethnopharmacol. 2019 Jan 30;229:54-72. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2018.09.037. Epub 2018 Oct 1.

Are polyphenol antioxidants at the root of medicinal plant anti-cancer success?

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Dept Physiological Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Private Bag X1, Matieland, Stellenbosch 7602, South Africa.
Dept Physiological Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Private Bag X1, Matieland, Stellenbosch 7602, South Africa. Electronic address:



Given the severe side effects associated with most of the conventional cancer medications, as well as the expanding body of evidence indicating secondary toxicity of these drugs, individuals with cancer are increasingly turning to natural alternatives. Similarly, the pharmaceutical industry is in search of natural products to treat cancer. An understanding of the specific active components in plant products with which anti-cancer efficacy is achieved is required for this research to move forward.


To integrate data from cancer-relatestudies on plant-derived products or extracts, to elucidate whether these products may have similar active ingredients and/or mechanisms of action, that can explain their efficacy. This review also includes a discussion of the methodological complexities and important considerations involved in accurate isolation and characterisation of active substances from plant material.


From the literature reviewed, most plant products with consistently reported anti-cancer efficacy contains high levels of polyphenols or other potent antioxidants and their mechanisms of action correlate to that reported for isolated antioxidants in the context of cancer. This suggests that natural products may indeed become the panacea against this chronic disease - either as therapeutic medicine strategy or to serve as templates for the design of novel synthetic drugs. The recommendation is made that antioxidant activity of plant actives and especially polyphenols, should be the focus of anti-cancer drug discovery initiatives. Lastly, researchers are advised to exploit current techniques of chemical compound characterisation when investigating polyphenol-rich plants to enable the easy consolidation of research findings from different laboratories.


Alkaloid; Oxidative stress; Plant characterisation; Prooxidant

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