Planta Med 2008; 74(7): 764-772
DOI: 10.1055/s-2008-1074535
Analytical Studies
Original Paper
© Georg Thieme Verlag KG Stuttgart · New York

Quality and Functionality of Saffron: Quality Control, Species Assortment and Affinity of Extract and Isolated Saffron Compounds to NMDA and σ1 (Sigma-1) Receptors

Matthias Lechtenberg1 , Dirk Schepmann2 , Michael Niehues1 , Nils Hellenbrand1 , Bernhard Wünsch2 , Andreas Hensel1
  • 1Institute for Pharmaceutical Biology and Phytochemistry, University of Münster, Münster, Germany
  • 2Institute for Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry, University of Münster, Münster, Germany
Further Information

Publication History

Received: September 15, 2007 Revised: March 7, 2008

Accepted: April 6, 2008

Publication Date:
21 May 2008 (online)


Extracts from saffron, the dried stigmata from Crocus sativus L., are being used more and more in preclinical and clinical trials for the treatment of cancer and depression. Because of the known quality problems of saffron, HPLC methods on RP18 2.5 μm and monolithic RP18 material have been developed and validated for quality control including the quantification of crocins 1 to 5, crocetin, picrocrocin and the degradation products, the cis-crocins. Additionally, a GC-MS method has allowed detection and quantification of the volatile compounds from the pentane extract of saffron. Both systems together allowed the comprehensive characterisation of saffron herbal material and extracts for clinical/preclinical trials. For effective preparation of the respective reference standards, a fast centrifugal partition chromatography (FCPC) method was developed allowing the quick isolation of crocins 1, 2, 5 and picrocrocin in good yields. Using these chromatographic methods and the reference standards, a representative survey of saffron from the global market indicated a high variability of quality, especially concerning the amounts of volatile compounds in saffron samples. A specification for high-quality saffron of > 20 % crocins, > 6 % picrocrocin and not less than 0.3 % of volatiles, calculated as sum of safranal, isophorone and ketoisophorone, was developed. Because no detailed pharmacological studies are available to explain the clinical effects of saffron for the treatment of cancer and depression, receptor binding studies were performed. Saffron extracts and crocetin had a clear binding capacity at the PCP binding side of the NMDA receptor and at the σ1 receptor, while the crocins and picrocrocin were not effective. These data could give biochemical support for the above-mentioned pharmacological effects of saffron.


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Prof. Dr. Andreas Hensel

Institute for Pharmaceutical Biology

University of Münster

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48149 Münster


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