Vegetables contain ‘garden variety’ cancer drugs

By The Science Advisory Board staff writers

December 8, 2022 -- Polish scientists have revealed the potential for new cancer drugs formulated from nightshade plants (genus Solanum), including potatoes and eggplants. Their research, published December 7 in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, reviewed glycoalkaloids -- bioactive compounds in common vegetables -- for their cancer treatment potential.

Nearly everyone is affected by cancer. In 2020, around 10 million cancer deaths occurred worldwide. Treatments often damage healthy cells or have severe side effects. Traditional medicine may offer new possibilities.

Researchers focused on five glycoalkaloids -- solanine, chaconine, solasonine, solamargine, and tomatine -- found in nightshades. This family (Solanaceae) includes common food plants, and some that are toxic, containing alkaloids that defend them from herbivorous animals. But safe doses may turn alkaloids into powerful clinical tools.

In silico studies, performed via computer simulation, indicate that glycoalkaloids may safely inhibit cancer cell growth and promote cancer cell death. The researchers highlighted solanine and chaconine -- glycoalkaloids derived from potatoes. Glycoalkaloid levels depend upon the potato cultivar and light and temperature conditions.

Solanine stops some chemicals from becoming carcinogenic, inhibits metastasis, and kills one leukemia cell type. Chaconine's anti-inflammatory properties could potentially treat sepsis. Solamargine, found in eggplants, stops liver cancer cells from reproducing, and targets cancer stem cells that play a role in cancer drug resistance. Solasonine from various nightshades may also attack cancer stem cells. And tomatine from tomatoes supports the body's cell cycle regulation, enabling it to kill cancer cells.

Further research may determine how this in vitro potential can best be turned into practical medicine. High temperature processing may improve glycoalkaloid properties, and nanoparticles may improve glycoalkaloid transmission to cancer cells, boosting drug delivery. However, glycoalkaloids must be better understood, and safety concerns scrutinized, before patients can benefit from garden-variety cancer drugs.

"Even if we cannot replace anticancer drugs that are used nowadays, maybe combined therapy will increase the effectiveness of this treatment," co-author Magdalena Winkiel of Adam Mickiewicz University, said in a statement.

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