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Clin Cancer Res. 2010 Dec 1;16(23):5679-91. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-10-1565.

Quercetin induces tumor-selective apoptosis through downregulation of Mcl-1 and activation of Bax.

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Graduate Center for Toxicology, College of Medicine, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky 40536, USA.



To investigate the in vivo antitumor efficacy of quercetin in U937 xenografts and the functional roles of Mcl-1 and Bax in quercetin-induced apoptosis in human leukemia.


Leukemia cells were treated with quercetin, after which apoptosis, Mcl-1 expression, and Bax activation and translocation were evaluated. The efficacy of quercetin as well as Mcl-1 expression and Bax activation were investigated in xenografts of U937 cells.


Administration of quercetin caused pronounced apoptosis in both transformed and primary leukemia cells but not in normal blood peripheral mononuclear cells. Quercetin-induced apoptosis was accompanied by Mcl-1 downregulation and Bax conformational change and mitochondrial translocation that triggered cytochrome c release. Knockdown of Bax by siRNA reversed quercetin-induced apoptosis and abrogated the activation of caspase and apoptosis. Ectopic expression of Mcl-1 attenuated quercetin-mediated Bax activation, translocation, and cell death. Conversely, interruption of Mcl-1 by siRNA enhanced Bax activation and translocation, as well as lethality induced by quercetin. However, the absence of Bax had no effect on quercetin-mediated Mcl-1 downregulation. Furthermore, in vivo administration of quercetin attenuated tumor growth in U937 xenografts. The TUNEL-positive apoptotic cells in tumor sections increased in quercetin-treated mice as compared with controls. Mcl-1 downregulation and Bax activation were also observed in xenografts.


These data suggest that quercetin may be useful for the treatment of leukemia by preferentially inducing apoptosis in leukemia versus normal hematopoietic cells through a process involving Mcl-1 downregulation, which, in turn, potentiates Bax activation and mitochondrial translocation, culminating in apoptosis.

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