OBJECTIVE : The aim of this study was to develop a novel photosensitizer from traditional plant extracts and to investigate the photodynamic therapy (PDT) effect and mechanism of action of the novel photosensitizer on KB and Hep-2 cells. METHODS : Fluorescence emission, cell viability, and intracellular distribution of candidates were analyzed to screen potential photosensitizers from traditional plant extracts. Cellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) quantification, Annexin V-FITC/PI staining, and western blotting were performed to explore the mechanism of cell death in KB and Hep-2 cells. RESULTS : Of 289 traditional plant extracts, 13 plant extracts with strong fluorescence were initially screened by fluorescence emission analysis. The cell viability assay and intracellular distribution of candidates showed that Acanthopanacis Cortex (AC) extract is a potential photosensitizer. Under optimal PDT conditions, high levels of ROS were produced in KB and Hep-2 cells, followed by cell death. However, there was no significant damage to HaCaT cells. Moreover, apoptosis induced by AC extract with 625 nm irradiation (IR) down-regulated the expression of Bcl-2 protein and up-regulated the expression of Bax protein, as well as that of cleaved PARP-1 protein in both KB and Hep-2 cells. CONCLUSIONS : The fluorescence intensity of AC extract at 420 nm is similar to that of the commercial Hematoporphyrin (HP). AC extract with 625 nm IR could enhance the PDT effect, induce ROS generation, and trigger apoptotic pathways in KB and Hep-2 cells. Therefore, we suggest that AC is a potential novel photosensitizer for PDT in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.