Psoralens

Psoralens are linear furocoumarins which are widely distributed in plants, but are particularly abundant in the Umbelliferae/Apiaceae and Rutaceae. The most common examples are psoralen, bergapten, xanthotoxin, and isopimpinellin (Figure 4.33). Plants containing psoralens have been used internally and externally to promote skin pigmentation and sun-tanning. Bergamot oil obtained from the peel of Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia (Rutaceae) (see page 179) can contain up to 5% bergapten, and is frequently used in external suntan preparations. The psoralen, because of its extended chromophore, absorbs in the near UV and allows this radiation to stimulate formation of melanin pigments (see page 129).

Methoxsalen (xanthotoxin; 8-methoxypsoralen) (Figure 4.36), a constituent of the fruits of Ammi majus (Umbelliferae/Apiaceae), is used medically to facilitate skin repigmentation where severe blemishes exist (vitiligo). An oral dose of methoxsalen is followed by long wave UV irradiation, though such treatments must be very carefully regulated to

yJXT

thymine in DNA

O OMe xanthotoxin (methoxsalen)

yJXT

thymine in DNA

O OMe xanthotoxin (methoxsalen)

Figure 4.36

psoralen-DNA adduct

Figure 4.36

Psoralen Dna

psoralen-DNA di-adduct

psoralen-DNA di-adduct minimize the risk of burning, cataract formation, and the possibility of causing skin cancer. The treatment is often referred to as PUVA (psoralen + UV-A). PUVA is also of value in the treatment of psoriasis, a widespread condition characterized by proliferation of skin cells. Similarly, methoxsalen is taken orally, prior to UV treatment. Reaction with psoralens inhibits DNA replication and reduces the rate of cell division. Because of their planar nature, psoralens intercalate into DNA, and this enables a UV-initiated cycloaddition reaction between pyrimidine bases (primarily thymine) in DNA and the furan ring of psoralens (Figure 4.36). In some cases, di-adducts can form involving further cycloaddition via the pyrone ring, thus cross-linking the nucleic acid.

A troublesome extension of these effects can arise from the handling of plants that contain significant levels of furocoumarins. Celery (Apium graveolens; Umbelliferae/Apiaceae) is normally free of such compounds, but fungal infection with the natural parasite Sclerotinia sclerotiorum induces the synthesis of furocoumarins (xanthotoxin and others) as a response to the infections. Some field workers handling these infected plants have become very sensitive to UV light and suffer from a form of sunburn termed photophytodermatitis. Infected parsley (Petroselinum crispum) can give similar effects. Handling of rue (Ruta graveolens; Rutaceae) or giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum; Umbelliferae/Apiaceae), which naturally contain significant amounts of psoralen, bergapten, and xanthotoxin, can cause similar unpleasant reactions, or more commonly rapid blistering by direct contact with the sap. The giant hogweed can be particularly dangerous. Individuals vary in their sensitivity towards furocoumarins; some are unaffected whilst others tend to become sensitized by an initial exposure and then develop the allergic response on subsequent exposures.

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