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J Surg Res. 2007 Nov;143(1):58-65.

Flavonoid, silibinin, inhibits proliferation and promotes cell-cycle arrest of human colon cancer.

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  • 1Department of General Surgery, Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, USA.



Anti-oxidative extracts from the milk thistle plant (Silybum marianum) have been shown to have antiproliferative effects in several tumor types. Silibinin is the primary active component isolated from the crude seed extract, silymarin. It has been used as a dietary supplement for hepatoprotection for over 2000 years. Silibinin has been shown to be safe in multiple animal models and has had no significant adverse events in human studies. We investigated the potential for this nontoxic flavolignan to inhibit proliferation of human colon cancer.


Three well-characterized cell lines, Fet, Geo, and HCT116, were studied. The MTT cell-viability assay was performed to study the effect of silibinin on proliferation. Fluorescence-activated cell sorter (FACS) analysis was used to determine the effects of silibinin on cell cycle and apoptosis. 4', 6'-diamidine-2'-phenylindole (DAPI) staining with confocal microscopy was used to morphologically confirm these results. Poly ADP-ribose polymerase (PARP) cleavage and expression levels of p21, p27, cyclins B1/D1, and CDK-2 were measured. Cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) levels were also measured. The experiments were performed in triplicate and reported as mean values with standard errors. Means were contrasted using analysis of variance with Dunnet's correction for multiple testing. All statistical testing was two-sided with a significance level of 5%.


The MTT assay revealed a strong dose-dependent inhibitory effect. Treatment with 75 microg/mL resulted in 50% inhibition of cell-viability (IC-50) in Fet and Geo lines at 72 h. An IC50 dose of 40 ug/mL was obtained in HCT116, a poorly-differentiated cell line, at 72 h. FACS analysis demonstrated statistically significant cell-cycle arrest in all cell lines. G(2)-M phase arrests in Fet and Geo cell lines (P < 0.001) and a G1 arrest in HCT116 (P = 0.005) were noted. Trivial increases in early apoptotic rates (2% to 3%) for Geo and HCT116 were noted on FACS analysis via annexin V-propidium iodide technique (P < 0.05), but no evidence for apoptosis was seen on Western blot for PARP cleavage or DAPI. Cyclin B1/D1 and CDK-2 levels were inhibited. Increased expression of cell cycle inhibitors, p21 or p27, was noted, and there was no effect on COX-2 expression.


Silibinin significantly inhibits proliferation through cell-cycle arrest via inhibition of cyclin-CDK promoter activity. Despite its antioxidant profile, there is no effect on COX-2 expression. Apoptosis does not appear to be greatly increased in human colon cancer cell lines Fet, Geo, and HCT116. Rather, inhibition of cell cycle regulatory proteins plays a fundamental role in silibinin's mechanism of action, and this may serve as a basis for combined use with conventional chemotherapeutics.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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