The search for innovative therapeutic approaches based on the use of new substances is gaining more interest in clinical oncology. In this in vitro study the potential anti-tumoral activity of tea tree oil, distilled from Melaleuca alternifolia, was analyzed against human melanoma M14 WT cells and their drug-resistant counterparts, M14 adriamicin-resistant cells. Both sensitive and resistant cells were grown in the presence of tea tree oil at concentrations ranging from 0.005 to 0.03%. Both the complex oil (tea tree oil) and its main active component terpinen-4-ol were able to induce caspase-dependent apoptosis of melanoma cells and this effect was more evident in the resistant variant cell population. Freeze-fracturing and scanning electron microscopy analyses suggested that the effect of the crude oil and of the terpinen-4-ol was mediated by their interaction with plasma membrane and subsequent reorganization of membrane lipids. In conclusion, tea tree oil and terpinen-4-ol are able to impair the growth of human M14 melanoma cells and appear to be more effective on their resistant variants, which express high levels of P-glycoprotein in the plasma membrane, overcoming resistance to caspase-dependent apoptosis exerted by P-glycoprotein-positive tumor cells.
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