The dried root or rhizome of Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis L.) contains several alkaloids including berberine, hydrastine, palmatine and lesser amounts of canadine and hydrastinine. Preparations derived from Goldenseal have been used to treat skin and eye ailments. Berberine, the major alkaloid in Goldenseal root powder, has been used in eye drops to treat trachoma, a disease characterized by keratoconjunctivitis. Berberine and palmatine are also present in extracts from Berberis amurensis Ruprecht (Berberidaceae) which are used to treat ocular disorders. We have previously shown that Goldenseal alkaloids are phototoxic to keratinocytes (Chem Res Toxicol. 14, 1529, 2001; ibid 19, 739, 2006) and now report their effect on human lens and retinal pigment epithelial cells. Human lens epithelial cells (HLE-B3) were severely damaged when incubated with berberine (25 μM) and exposed to UVA (5 J/cm2). Under the same conditions palmatine was less phototoxic and hydrastine, canadine and hydrastinine were inactive. Moderate protection against berberine phototoxicity was afforded by the antioxidants ascorbate (2 mM) and N-acetylcysteine (5 mM). When exposed to UVA (5 J/cm2) both berberine (10 μM) and palmatine (10 μM) caused mild DNA damage as determined by the alkaline Comet assay which measures single strand breaks. Berberine and palmatine are the only Goldenseal alkaloids with appreciable absorption above 400 nm. Because light at wavelengths below 400 nm is cut off by the anterior portion of the human eye only berberine and palmatine were tested for phototoxicity to human retinal pigment epithelial (hRPE) cells. Although berberine did damage hRPE cells when irradiated with visible light (λ>400 nm) approximately ten times higher concentrations were required to produce the same amount of damage as seen in lens cells. Palmatine was not phototoxic to hRPE cells. Neither berberine nor palmatine photodamaged RPE DNA. Infusions of Goldenseal are estimated to contain ~1 mM berberine while in tinctures the alkaloid concentration may be more than 10 times higher. Our findings show that eyewashes and lotions derived from Goldenseal or containing berberine must be used with caution when the eyes are exposed to bright sunlight but that oral preparations are not likely to cause ocular phototoxicity.
Keywords: Berberine, palmatine, hydrastine, canadine, hydrastinine, Goldenseal, phototoxicity, Comet assay, human lens cells, human retinal pigment epithelial cells