Isoliquiritigenin inhibits pancreatic cancer progression through blockade of p38 MAPK-regulated autophagy

Zhu Zhang, Wen Qing Chen, Shi Qing Zhang, Jing Xuan Bai, Bin Liu, Ken Kin Lam Yung*, Joshua Ka Shun Ko*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Pancreatic cancer has been characterized by poor prognosis, early metastasis and dissatisfactory treatment outcome. The high basal level of autophagy in tumor cells leads to chemoresistance and tumor progression. Thus, it is imminent to explore novel effective chemotherapeutic adjuvants to increase patients’ survival rate. Isoliquiritigenin (ISL) is a bioactive flavonoid obtained from the Traditional Chinese herbal medicine Glycyrrhiza glabra, and it possesses a broad range of pharmacological effects. In this study, the anti-cancer effect of ISL in pancreatic cancer treatment and the underlying mechanism are investigated.

Methods: MTT assay, colony formation and EdU analysis were performed to explore the growth inhibition of ISL on pancreatic cancer cells. Apoptosis were analyzed using TUNEL and flow cytometry. The formations of autophagosomes were analyzed by immunofluorescence microscopy and transmission electron microscopy. RFP-GFP-LC3B probe was applied to detect the autophagy flux. To assess the structural interaction of ISL with p38 protein, molecular docking assays were performed. The molecular mechanism was elucidated by using western immunoblotting. Subsequently, the inhibition of ISL on tumor growth was determined in vivo using pancreatic tumor mice model.

Results: ISL inhibited pancreatic cancer cell growth and induced apoptosis, both in vitro and in vivo. ISL caused accumulation of autophagosome through blockade of late stage autophagic flux. Moreover, autophagy inducer rapamycin enhanced ISL-evoked cell growth inhibition and promoted apoptosis, while inhibition of autophagosome formation by siAtg5 attenuated ISL-induced apoptosis. It is remarkable that ISL synergistically sensitized the cytotoxic effect of gemcitabine and 5-fluorouracil on pancreatic cancer cells as both drugs induced autophagy. Molecular docking analysis has indicated that ISL acted by direct targeting of p38 MAPK, which was confirmed by ISL-induced phosphorylation of p38. The autophagy flux induced by p38 inhibitor SB203580 was blocked by ISL, with further increasing toxicity of ISL in pancreatic cancer cells.

Conclusion: The results have revealed that ISL inhibited pancreatic cancer progression by blockade of autophagy through p38 MAPK signaling.

Original languageEnglish
Article number154406
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2022

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Pharmacology
  • Pharmaceutical Science
  • Drug Discovery
  • Complementary and alternative medicine

User-Defined Keywords

  • Apoptosis
  • Autophagy
  • Isoliquiritigenin
  • p38 MAPK
  • Pancreatic cancer


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