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Triple negative breast cancer(TNBC) has generated growing interests due to its aggressive biologic behavior and absence of targeted therapy approach. Glycyrrhizin(GL) from licorice root and its metabolite, glycyrrhetinic acid(GA) have shown extensive bioactivities in clinic. Here, we demonstrate that GL and GA have contrary anti-cancer effect on TNBC MDA-MB-231 cells. Beside its inhibition of cell proliferation, GA at non-cytotoxic concentration showed synergistic effect in combination with anti-cancer drug, etoposide(VP-16). Specifically, GA enhanced cytotoxicity through regulating topoisomerase IIα(TOPO 2A) targeted by etoposide. GA sensitized the cells to etoposide through elevating TOPO 2A with a 2.4 fold rate at 12 h. From 12 to 48 h, GA halved the expression of TOPO 2A and stimulated apoptosis, which exhibited its antineoplastic effect. Our experiments showed that GSH depletion, modulation of MAPK and AKT pathways accounted for the regulation of topoisomerase IIα and apoptosis. However, GL showed protection and detoxication by decreasing reactive oxygen species generation, maintaining GSH and differentially modulating apoptosis, AKT pathway, ERK and JNK of MAPK pathway. Collectively, our results demonstrate that GA, instead of GL, is a better candidate for TNBC treatment because of its anti-cancer effect and sensitization of topoisomerase IIα inhibitor.