Advances in antitumor activity and mechanism of natural steroidal saponins: A review of advances, challenges, and future prospects

Fengge Wang, Lu Liang, Ma Yu, Wenjie Wang, Iftikhar Hussain Badar, Yongping Bao, Kai Zhu, Yanlin Li, Saba Shafi, Dangdang Li, Yongchao Diao, Thomas Efferth, Zheyong Xue, Xin Hua

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Cancer, the second leading cause of death worldwide following cardiovascular diseases, presents a formidable challenge in clinical settings due to the extensive toxic side effects associated with primary chemotherapy drugs employed for cancer treatment. Furthermore, the emergence of drug resistance against specific chemotherapeutic agents has further complicated the situation. Consequently, there exists an urgent imperative to investigate novel anticancer drugs. Steroidal saponins, a class of natural compounds, have demonstrated notable antitumor efficacy. Nonetheless, their translation into clinical applications has remained unrealized thus far. In light of this, we conducted a comprehensive systematic review elucidating the antitumor activity, underlying mechanisms, and inherent limitations of steroidal saponins. Additionally, we propose a series of strategic approaches and recommendations to augment the antitumor potential of steroidal saponin compounds, thereby offering prospective insights for their eventual clinical implementation.

Purpose: This review summarizes steroidal saponins' antitumor activity, mechanisms, and limitations.

Methods: The data included in this review are sourced from authoritative databases such as PubMed, Web of Science, ScienceDirect, and others.

Results: A comprehensive summary of over 40 steroidal saponin compounds with proven antitumor activity, including their applicable tumor types and structural characteristics, has been compiled. These steroidal saponins can be primarily classified into five categories: spirostanol, isospirostanol, furostanol, steroidal alkaloids, and cholestanol. The isospirostanol and cholestanol saponins are found to have more potent antitumor activity. The primary antitumor mechanisms of these saponins include tumor cell apoptosis, autophagy induction, inhibition of tumor migration, overcoming drug resistance, and cell cycle arrest. However, steroidal saponins have limitations, such as higher cytotoxicity and lower bioavailability. Furthermore, strategies to address these drawbacks have been proposed.

Conclusion: In summary, isospirostanol and cholestanol steroidal saponins demonstrate notable antitumor activity and different structural categories of steroidal saponins exhibit variations in their antitumor signaling pathways. However, the clinical application of steroidal saponins in cancer treatment still faces limitations, and further research and development are necessary to advance their potential in tumor therapy.
Original languageEnglish
Article number155432
Early online date9 Feb 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 Feb 2024


  • Antitumor mechanisms
  • Cancer
  • Phytochemistry
  • Phytotherapy
  • Steroidal saponins

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