Sanguinaria canadensis L. () is a low perennial with mostly white flowers and thick rhizomes containing an acrid red-orange juice from whence the plant was named (sanguinarius, bleeding). This monotypic genus is a member of the Papaver-aceae family, known to contain a diversity of isoquinoline alkaloids, including the protoberberine and benzophenanthridine alkaloids which are found in many species of this family (). The synonymous Latin binomials for Sanguinaria canadensis are claimed to be Chelidonium maximum canadense, Sanguinaria acaulis, and Sanguinaria vernalis. Moreover, a number of vernacular names of Sanguinaria canadensis have been used, some examples include: bloodroot, Indian paint, red root, snakebite, and sweet slumber.
Sanguinaria canadensis is distributed across Canada east to Nova Scotia, south from New England to Florida, west to Texas and north to Manitoba (). Historically speaking, the red-orange juice obtained from the roots and stem of the plant was used by native American Indians as a dye for clothing, baskets, and skin. Medicinal uses of this plant by native American Indians included a tea derived from roots which was used as a treatment for rheumatism, asthma, bronchitis, and as an emetic (). Furthermore, extracts obtained from this plant were used as a breast cancer remedy by the Cherokee Indians and as a cancer treatment in Russia ().
The medicinal qualities of Sanguinaria canadensis can be directly correlated to the alkaloidal content of this species and the most characteristic group of alkaloids isolated from Sanguinaria canadensis are the quaternary benzophenanthridine alkaloids. Isolation of this class of alkaloids was first reported in 1839 by Probst () and to date, approximately 80 naturally occurring benzophenanthridine alkaloids have been isolated and characterized ().
Chemotaxonomically speaking, the benzophenanthridine alkaloids have a very limited phylogenetic distribution, being found within only five plant families: Caprifoliaceae, Fumariaceae, Meliaceae, Papaveraceae, and Rutaceae (). The chemistry and biological activity of the benzophenanthridine alkaloids has been extensively reviewed by Krane et al. () and Simanek ().
As previously mentioned, the benzophenanthridine alkaloids belong to the isoquinoline class which are well known for their structural diversity and pharmaceutical importance (). Within the past 15 years, the benzophenanthridine alkaloids have been the target of intense biological investigation due to their cytotoxic and antitumor activities () as well as their antiplaque and antibacterial activities (). Sanguinarine was determined to completely inhibit the growth of 98% of plaque-causing bacterial strains (181 tested) at concentrations of 16//g/ml and is the active ingredient in a number of over-the counter dental care products (). Furthermore, both sanguinarine and chelerythrine () have exhibited cytotoxic activity against sarcoma 37 in mice (), and sanguinarine has also been shown to suppress collengenase, inhibit Na + , K + -ATPase, and tubulin assembly ().
Both callus and cell suspension cultures of Sanguinaria canadensis may be initiated and maintained on a B5 medium (). Each culture type produced protopine, sanguinarine and chelerythrine in varying quantities, depending on the culture conditions. Measurement of the total alkaloid content in the suspension cells over the culture period, revealed that alkaloid biosynthesis does not begin until growth slows and the cells enter stationary phase. Total alkaloid concentrations in this cell line ranged from 2.1 mg-5.5 mg/g dry wt, with sanguinarine, chelerythrine, and protopine as the main alkaloids, which differs significantly from the whole plant (). The accumulation of sanguinarine and chelerythrine in suspension cells could be artificially stimulated, by manipulating the phosphate, sucrose, or 2,4-D concentrations in the nutrient medium. The production of alkaloids by these methods appears to be associated with a decrease in cell growth. Production of protoberberine and benzophenanthridine alkaloids in Sanguinaria canadensis suspension cultures has remained stable over the past 5 years.
Recently, we have demonstrated that benzophenanthridine alkaloid accumulation in this cell line may be stimulated by treatment of the cells with a fungal elicitor derived from Penicillium expansum Link or stress-inducing agents (). Stimulation of an elicitation response has been the basis of a set of techniques which we have been using to investigate the regulation of benzophenanthridine alkaloid biosynthesis in this cell line ().
Selections from the book: “Medicinal and Aromatic Plants V”, 1993.