Hypericin is the active ingredient in the over the counter antidepressant medication St. John's Wort. Hypericin produces singlet oxygen and other excited state intermediates that indicate it should be a very efficient phototoxic agent in the eye. Furthermore it absorbs in the UV and visible range, which means it can potentially damage both the lens and the retina. Lens α-crystallin, isolated from calf lenses, was irradiated in the presence of hypericin (5 × 10−5 M, 10 mM ammonium bicarbonate, pH 7.0) and in the presence and absence of light (>300 nm, 24 mW/cm2). Hypericin-induced photosensitized photopolymerization as assessed by sodium dodecylsulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. Further analysis of the oxidative changes occurring in α-crystallin using mass spectrometry showed specific oxidation of methionine, tryptophan and histidine residues, which increased with irradiation time. Hypericin did not damage the lens protein in the dark. Damage to α-crystallin could undermine the integrity of the lens directly by protein denaturation and indirectly by disturbing chaperone function. Therefore, in the presence of light, hypericin can induce changes in lens protein that could lead to the formation of cataracts. Appropriate precautions should be taken to protect the eye from intense sunlight while on this antidepressant medication.
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Vol. 72 • No. 2