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J Cell Biochem. 2010 Dec 15;111(6):1426-36. doi: 10.1002/jcb.22869.

Berberine induces autophagic cell death and mitochondrial apoptosis in liver cancer cells: the cellular mechanism.

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School of Chinese Medicine, The University of Hong Kong, 10 Sassoon Road, Pokfulam, Hong Kong, PR of China.


Extensive studies have revealed that berberine, a small molecule derived from Coptidis rhizoma (Huanglian in Chinese) and many other plants, has strong anti-tumor properties. To better understand berberine-induced cell death and its underlying mechanisms in cancer, we examined autophagy and apoptosis in the human hepatic carcinoma cell lines HepG2 and MHCC97-L. The results of this study indicate that berberine can induce both autophagy and apoptosis in hepatocellular carcinoma cells. Berberine-induced cell death in human hepatic carcinoma cells was diminished in the presence of the cell death inhibitor 3-methyladenine, or following interference with the essential autophagy gene Atg5. Mechanistic studies showed that berberine may activate mitochondrial apoptosis in HepG2 and MHCC97-L cells by increasing Bax expression, the formation of permeable transition pores, cytochrome C release to cytosol, and subsequent activation of the caspases 3 and 9 execution pathway. Berberine may also induce autophagic cell death in HepG2 and MHCC97-L cells through activation of Beclin-1 and inhibition of the mTOR-signaling pathway by suppressing the activity of Akt and up-regulating P38 MAPK signaling. This is the first study to describe the role of Beclin-1 activation and mTOR inhibition in berberine-induced autophagic cell death. These results further demonstrate the potential of berberine as a therapeutic agent in the emerging list of cancer therapies with novel mechanisms.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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