Combined treatment with sorafenib and silibinin synergistically targets both HCC cells and cancer stem cells by enhanced inhibition of the phosphorylation of STAT3/ERK/AKT

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Silibinin, a nontoxic bioactive component in milk thistle, is used as a liver-protective drug in the clinic mainly because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammation activities. In this study, we studied the cytotoxic effects of silibinin combined with sorafenib on hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). The results indicated that silibinin combined with sorafenib potently inhibited the proliferation of various HCC cells and induced significant apoptosis. In an HCC subcutaneous transplantation tumor model, the combination of silibinin and sorafenib significantly suppressed tumor growth compared with monotherapy. As determined by fluorescence staining and Western blots, the combination of the two drugs inhibited the phosphorylation of RAC-alpha serine/threonine-protein kinase (AKT) and signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) together with the expression of antiapoptotic proteins including myeloid leukemia cell differentiation protein Mcl-1 (Mcl-1) and apoptosis regulator Bcl-2 (Bcl-2), resulting in the death of cancer cells. We also found that the combination inhibited the formation and self-renewal of HCC stem cells by down-regulating the expression of stemness-related proteins, such as Homeobox protein NANOG (Nanog) and Krueppel-like factor 4 (Klf4). These results suggested that silibinin improved the efficacy of sorafenib in HCC therapy, indicating a clinical promising therapeutic strategy for HCC patients.

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