Natural products have played a significant role in drug discovery and development especially for agents against cancer and infectious disease. An analysis of new and approved drugs for cancer by the United States Food and Drug Administration over the period of 1981-2002 showed that 62% of these cancer drugs were of natural origin. Natural compounds possess highly diverse and complex molecular structures compared to small molecule synthetic drugs and often provide highly specific biological activities likely derived from the rigidity and high number of chiral centers. Ethnotraditional use of plant-derived natural products has been a major source for discovery of potential medicinal agents. A number of native Andean and Amazonian medicines of plant origin are used as traditional medicine in Peru to treat different diseases. Of particular interest in this mini-review are three plant materials endemic to Peru with the common names of Cat's claw (Uncaria tomentosa), Maca (Lepidium meyenii), and Dragon's blood (Croton lechleri) each having been scientifically investigated for a wide range of therapeutic uses including as specific anti-cancer agents as originally discovered from the long history of traditional usage and anecdotal information by local population groups in South America. Against this background, we present an evidence-based analysis of the chemistry, biological properties, and anti-tumor activities for these three plant materials. In addition, this review will discuss areas requiring future study and the inherent limitations in their experimental use as anti-cancer agents.
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