BackgroundCancer chemoprevention is a new approach in cancer prevention, in which chemical agents are used to prevent cancer in normal and/or high-risk populations. Although chemoprevention has shown promise in some epithelial cancers, currently available preventive agents are limited and the agents are costly, generally with side effects. Natural products, such as grape seed, green tea, and certain herbs have demonstrated anti-cancer effects. To find a natural product that can be used in chemoprevention of cancer, we tested Arizona cactus fruit solution, the aqueous extracts of cactus pear, for its anti-cancer effects in cultured cells and in an animal model.MethodAqueous extracts of cactus pear were used to treat immortalized ovarian and cervical epithelial cells, as well as ovarian, cervical, and bladder cancer cells. Aqueous extracts of cactus pear were used at six concentrations (0, 0.5, 1, 5, 10 or 25%) to treat cells for 1, 3, or 5 days. Growth inhibition, apoptosis induction, and cell cycle changes were analyzed in the cultured cells; the suppression of tumor growth in nude mice was evaluated and compared with the effect of a synthetic retinoid N-(4-hydroxyphernyl) retinamide (4-HPR), which is currently used as a chemoprevention agent. Immunohistochemistry staining of tissue samples from animal tumors was performed to examine the gene expression.ResultsCells exposed to cactus pear extracts had a significant increase in apoptosis and growth inhibition in both immortalized epithelial cells and cancer cells in a dose- and time-dependent manner. It also affected cell cycle of cancer cells by increasing G1 and decreasing G2 and S phases. Both 4-HPR and cactus pear extracts significantly suppressed tumor growth in nude mice, increased annexin IV expression, and decreased VEGF expression.ConclusionArizona cactus pear extracts effectively inhibited cell growth in several different immortalized and cancer cell cultures, suppressed tumor growth in nude mice, and modulated expression of tumor-related genes. These effects were comparable with those caused by a synthetic retinoid currently used in chemoprevention trials. The mechanism of the anti-cancer effects of cactus pear extracts needs to be further studied.