Synergistic antitumor activity of sorafenib and artesunate in hepatocellular carcinoma cells

Abstract

Sorafenib is currently the standard chemotherapy drug for treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). But its efficacy requires improvement, it is imperative to seek therapeutic strategies that combine sorafenib with other anticancer agents. In this study we investigated the synergistic anticancer effect of combining sorafenib and artesunate, an anti-malaria drug derivative, against HCC in vitro and in vivo. We first showed that artesunate (1–100 μM) alone dose-dependently inhibited the proliferation of five HCC cell lines tested with IC50 values of around 100 μM. Artesunate treatment dose-dependently increased the ROS level in both HuH7 and Hep3B cells; addition of NAC significantly ameliorated the antiproliferation effect of artesunate against HuH7 and Hep3B cells. Then we demonstrated that combination of sorafenib and artesunate exerted synergistic antiproliferation effect and induced synergistic apoptosis in HCC cell lines. In nude mice bearing Hep3B xenografts, combined administration of sorafenib and artesunate significantly enhanced the suppression on tumor growth. We further revealed that sorafenib dose-dependently decreased the levels of p-ERK and p-STAT3, whereas artesunate markedly increased the levels of p-ERK and p-STAT3 in HuH7 and Hep3B cells. When used in combination, sorafenib abolished artesunate-elevated levels of p-STAT3 and p-ERK. Moreover, pharmacological inhibition of ERK by inhibitor PD0325901 or STAT3 by inhibitor Stattic markedly enhanced the anticancer activity of artesunate, suggesting that suppression of ERK and STAT3 signaling by sorafenib contributes to the synergistic anticancer activity against HCC caused by combination of sorafenib and artesunate. Taken together, our results provide an evidence for possible use of sorafenib plus artesunate or artemisinin analogs for treatment of HCC in the future.

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Acknowledgements

This project was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (81503094, 81573410, and 81603071), the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation (2016M600524), and the Qingdao Postdoctoral Applied Research Project (2016072; Jian-jun Gao, Qingdao University).

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JJG conceived and designed the study. XY, CRZ, and HY performed the study. XY and CRZ collected and analyzed the data. JJG and KWW prepared the article.

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Correspondence to Jian-jun Gao.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Yao, X., Zhao, C., Yin, H. et al. Synergistic antitumor activity of sorafenib and artesunate in hepatocellular carcinoma cells. Acta Pharmacol Sin (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41401-020-0395-5

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Keywords

  • sorafenib
  • ERK
  • artemisinin
  • ROS
  • hepatocellular carcinoma
  • STAT3