Herbal medicines have played an important role in treating different diseases since ancient times. Bioactive components of medicinal plants are a good starting point for discovering new drugs such as chemotherapeutics. Currently, there are four classes of plant-derived chemotherapeutic drugs used in clinical practice. However, to discover new potential cytotoxic molecules, the research effort on herbal extracts has not diminished. The aim of this review was to evaluate the chemical constituents of plants that possess cytotoxicity, the signalling pathways responsible for this effect, and the influence of solvent polarity on potential cytotoxic effect and to present the cytotoxic activity of selected herbal extracts. The polyphenolic, anthraquinon, diterpneoid, triterpenoid, flavonoid, betulinic acid and berberine content contributes to cytotoxicity of herbal extracts. The inhibitory effect on cancer cells viability could be a consequence of the non-apoptotic processes, such as cell cycle arrestment, and the apoptotic process in tumour cells through different signalling pathways. The influence of solvent polarity on potential cytotoxic effect of herbal extracts should not be ignored. In general, the best cytotoxic activity was found in nonpolar and moderately polar herbal extracts. The herbal extract with IC50 below 30 μg/ml could be considered a very strong cytotoxic agent. Considering that many antitumor drugs have been discovered from natural products, further research on plants and plant-derived chemicals may result in the discovery of potent anticancer agents.
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