How tomatoes and potatoes can be used to treat cancer

Cancer treatment concept

Glycoalkaloids are a class of naturally occurring compounds found in many plants, especially those of the Solanaceae family, including the potato, tomato, eggplant and pepper plants. Because of their toxic nature, they are isolated, purified and manipulated to be researched into safe cancer drugs.

Glycoalkaloids found in plants of the genus Solanum could be a key ingredient in future cancer drugs.

Cancer is a disease that affects many people worldwide. In 2020, about 19 million new cases and 10 million deaths had been recorded. While cancer treatments are getting better, they can also damage healthy cells or have serious side effects. In the search for more targeted and effective cancer drugs, researchers are exploring the potential of bioactive compounds found in traditional medicine, such as glycoalkaloids.

A team of scientists led by Magdalena Winkiel at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland recently published a study in Frontiers in Pharmacologya review of the potential of glycoalkaloids found in common vegetables such as potatoes and tomatoes as a treatment for cancer.

“Scientists around the world are still looking for drugs that are lethal to cancer cells, but at the same time safe for healthy cells,” said Winkiel. “It is not easy, despite the advancements in medicine and the vigorous development of modern treatment techniques. Therefore, it may be worth going back to medicinal plants that were successfully used years ago in the treatment of various ailments. I believe it is worth re-examining their properties and perhaps rediscovering their potential.”

Making medicine from poison

Winkiel and her colleagues focused on five glycoalkaloids — solanine, chaconine, solasonine, solamargine and tomatine — found in raw extracts of the Solanaceae family of plants, also known as nightshades. This family contains many popular food plants – and many of them are poisonous, often due to the alkaloids they produce as a defense against plant-eating animals. But the right dose can turn a poison into a drug: Once scientists find a safe therapeutic dose for alkaloids, they can be powerful clinical tools.

In particular, glycoalkaloids inhibit cancer cell growth and may promote cancer cell death. These are important target areas for controlling cancer and improving patient prognosis, and thus hold enormous potential for future treatments. In silico studies – an important first step – suggest that the glycoalkaloids are non-toxic and at no risk of harm[{” attribute=””>DNA or causing future tumors, although there may be some effects on the reproductive system.

“Even if we cannot replace anticancer drugs that are used nowadays, maybe combined therapy will increase the effectiveness of this treatment,” Winkiel suggested. “There are many questions, but without detailed knowledge of the properties of glycoalkaloids, we will not be able to find out.”

From tomatoes to treatments

One necessary step forward is using in vitro and model animal studies, to determine which glycoalkaloids are safe and promising enough to test in humans. Winkiel and her colleagues highlight glycoalkaloids derived from potatoes, like solanine and chaconine – although the levels of these present in potatoes depend on the cultivar of potato and the light and temperature conditions the potatoes are exposed to. Solanine stops some potentially carcinogenic chemicals from transforming into carcinogens in the body and inhibits metastasis. Studies on a particular type of leukemia cells also showed that at therapeutic doses, solanine kills them. Chaconine has anti-inflammatory properties, with the potential to treat sepsis.

Meanwhile, solamargine — which is mostly found in aubergines — stops liver cancer cells from reproducing. Solamargine is one of several glycoalkaloids that could be crucial as a complementary treatment because it targets cancer stem cells which are thought to play a significant role in cancer drug resistance. Solasonine, which is found in several plants from the nightshade family, is also thought to attack cancer stem cells by targeting the same pathway. Even tomatoes offer potential for future medicine, with tomatine supporting the body’s regulation of the cell cycle so that it can kill cancer cells.

Further research will be needed to determine how this in vitro potential can best be turned into practical medicine, Winkiel and her team noted. There is some reason to believe that high-temperature processing improves glycoalkaloid properties, and nanoparticles have recently been found to improve the transmission of glycoalkaloids to cancer cells, boosting drug delivery. However, the glycoalkaloids’ mechanisms of action need to be better understood, and all potential safety concerns need to be scrutinized before patients can benefit from cancer drugs straight out of the vegetable patch.

Reference: “Anticancer activity of glycoalkaloids from Solanum plants: A review” by Magdalena Joanna Winkiel, Szymon Chowański and Małgorzata Słocińska, 7 December 2022, Frontiers in Pharmacology.
DOI: 10.3389/fphar.2022.979451

Leave a Comment