A traditional prescription comprising Astragali Radix and Schisandra chinensis Fructus induces apoptosis and protective autophagy in hepatocellular carcinoma cells

Pei Li Zhu, Jun Kui Li, Xiao Li Jiang, Shi Qing Zhang, Zhu Zhang, Ying Wang, Zhang Zhang, Wen Qing Chen, Ken Kin Lam Yung*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Ethnopharmacological relevance: Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) poses a growing challenge to global health efforts. The 5-year survival rate of HCC patients is still dismal. A traditional prescription Qi-Wei-Wan (QWW) comprising Astragali Radix and Schisandra chinensis Fructus has traditionally been used for HCC treatment according to traditional Chinese medicine theory, but the pharmacological basis is not clear.

Aim of the study: This study aims to investigate the anti-HCC effects of an ethanolic extract of QWW (hereafter, QWWE) and the mechanism of action.

Materials and methods: An UPLC-Q-TOF-MS/MS method was developed to control the quality of QWWE. Two human HCC cell lines (HCCLM3 and HepG2) and a HCCLM3 xenograft mouse model were employed to investigate the anti-HCC effects of QWWE. The anti-proliferative effect of QWWE in vitro was determined by MTT, colony formation and EdU staining assays. Apoptosis and protein levels were examined by flow cytometry and Western blotting, respectively. Nuclear presence of signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) was examined by immunostaining. Transient transfection of pEGFP-LC3 and STAT3C plasmids was performed to assess autophagy and determine the involvement of STAT3 signaling in QWWE's anti-HCC effects, respectively.

Results: We found that QWWE inhibited the proliferation of and triggered apoptosis in HCC cells. Mechanistically, QWWE inhibited the activation of SRC and STAT3 at Tyr416 and Tyr705, respectively; inhibited the nuclear translocation of STAT3; lowered Bcl-2 protein levels, while increased Bax protein levels in HCC cells. Over-activating STAT3 attenuated the cytotoxic and apoptotic effects of QWWE in HCC cells. Moreover, QWWE induced autophagy in HCC cells by inhibiting mTOR signaling. Blocking autophagy with autophagy inhibitors (3-methyladenine and chloroquine) enhanced the cytotoxicity, apoptotic effect and the inhibitory effect on STAT3 activation of QWWE. Intragastric administration of QWWE at 10 mg/kg and 20 mg/kg potently repressed tumor growth and inhibited STAT3 and mTOR signaling in tumor tissues, but did not significantly affect mouse body weight.

Conclusion: QWWE exhibited potent anti-HCC effects. Inhibiting the STAT3 signaling pathway is involved in QWWE-mediated apoptosis, while blocking mTOR signaling contributes to QWWE-mediated autophagy induction. Blockade of autophagy enhanced the anti-HCC effects of QWWE, indicating that the combination of an autophagy inhibitor and QWWE might be a promising therapeutic strategy for HCC management. Our findings provide pharmacological justifications for the traditional use of QWW in treating HCC.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116548
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Ethnopharmacology
Early online date24 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2023

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Drug Discovery

User-Defined Keywords

  • Apoptosis
  • Autophagy
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma
  • Qi-Wei-Wan formula
  • STAT3 and mTOR signaling


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