PURPOSE: Ashwagandha is regarded as a wonder shrub of India and is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine and health tonics that claim its variety of health-promoting effects. Surprisingly, these claims are not well supported by adequate studies, and the molecular mechanisms of its action remain largely unexplored to date. We undertook a study to identify and characterize the antitumor activity of the leaf extract of ashwagandha. EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: Selective tumor-inhibitory activity of the leaf extract (i-Extract) was identified by in vivo tumor formation assays in nude mice and by in vitro growth assays of normal and human transformed cells. To investigate the cellular targets of i-Extract, we adopted a gene silencing approach using a selected small hairpin RNA library and found that p53 is required for the killing activity of i-Extract. RESULTS: By molecular analysis of p53 function in normal and a variety of tumor cells, we found that it is selectively activated in tumor cells, causing either their growth arrest or apoptosis. By fractionation, purification, and structural analysis of the i-Extract constituents, we have identified its p53-activating tumor-inhibiting factor as with a none. CONCLUSION: We provide the first molecular evidence that the leaf extract of ashwagandha selectively kills tumor cells and, thus, is a natural source for safe anticancer medicine.