Capsaicin enhances the antitumor activity of sorafenib in hepatocellular carcinoma cells and mouse xenograft tumors through increased ERK signaling

Su-shan ZHANG1, Yu-hao NI1, Chen-ru ZHAO1, Zhen QIAO1, Hong-xia YU1, Lu-yao WANG1, Jin-yan SUN1, Chen DU1, Jia-hao ZHANG1, Li-ying DONG1, KeWei WANG1, Jian-jun GAO1
1 Department of Pharmacology, School of Pharmacy, Qingdao University, Qingdao 266021, China
Correspondence to: KeWei WANG:, Jian-jun GAO:,
DOI: 10.1038/aps.2017.156
Received: 21 February 2017
Accepted: 27 July 2017
Advance online: 30 November 2017


Sorafenib, a small inhibitor of tyrosine protein kinases, is currently the standard chemotherapy drug for the treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Although sorafenib improves the survival of HCC patients, its efficacy is not optimal and requires further improvement. Capsaicin, the major active component of chili peppers from the genus Capsicum, is not only the agonist of TRPV1 channel, but also displays antitumor activity and enhances the sensitivity of cancer cells to cytotoxic drugs. In this study, we investigated the antitumor effects of combined sorafenib and capsaicin on HCC cells in vitro and xenograft tumors. Treatment with capsaicin alone dose-dependently inhibited the proliferation of the HCC cell lines PLC/PRF/7, HuH7 and HepG2 with IC50 values of 137, 108 and 140.7 μmol/L, respectively. No obvious expression of TRPV1 channel was detected in the 3 HCC cell lines and TRPV1 channel blockers did not alleviate the cytotoxicity of capsaicin. By contrast, combining capsaicin and sorafenib significantly enhanced the suppression on cell proliferation, achieving a high-level synergistic effect (inhibition rates over 50%) and promoting HCC cell apoptosis. In nude mice with PLC/PRF/5 xenografts, combined administration of capsaicin and sorafenib significantly enhanced the suppression on tumor growth without apparent gross toxicity compared to either agent alone. Mechanistically, capsaicin (10–200 μmol/L) dosedependently increased the levels of phosphorylated ERK (p-ERK) in PLC/PRF/5 cells, thus leading to enhanced sorafenib sensitivity and a synergistic suppression on the tumor cells. Taken together, our results suggest that capsaicin-increased phosphorylation of ERK contributes to the enhanced antitumor activity of sorafenib, and capsaicin may be useful in improving the efficacy of sorafenib for the treatment of HCC.
Keywords: hepatocellular carcinoma; capsaicin; sorafenib; synergy; ERK; TRPV1

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