Esculetin exerts antitumor effect on human gastric cancer cells through IGF-1/PI3K/Akt signaling pathway

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In this study, we aimed to investigate the antitumor effect of esculetin, a coumarin derivative extracted from natural plants, on human gastric cancer cells, and to illustrate the potential mechanisms. The results showed that esculetin exhibited anti-proliferative effects against gastric cancer cells and induced their apoptosis in a dose dependent manner with lower toxicity against normal gastric epithelial cells. Mechanism study indicated that esculetin induced gastric cancer MGC-803 cells apoptosis by triggering the activation of mitochondrial apoptotic pathway through reducing the mitochondrial membrane potential (MMP), increasing Bax/Bcl-2 ratio, activating caspase-3 and caspase-9 activity, and increasing cytochrome c release from mitochondria. Further study showed that the pro-apoptotic effects of esculetin were associated with down-regulation of insulin-like growth factor-1/ phosphatidylinositide 3-kinase/protein kinase B (IGF-1/PI3K/Akt) signaling pathway. Activation of IGF-1/PI3K/Akt pathway by IGF-1 abrogated the pro-apoptotic effects of esculetin, while inhibition of IGF-1/PI3K/Akt pathway by triciribine or LY294002 enhanced the pro-apoptotic effects of esculetin. In addition, esculetin inhibited in vivo tumor growth with no obvious toxicity following subcutaneous inoculation of MGC-803 cells in nude mice, and inhibited activation of IGF-1/PI3K/Akt pathway in tumor tissue.


These results indicate that esculetin could inhibit cell proliferation and induce apoptosis of gastric cancer cells through IGF-1/PI3K/Akt mediated mitochondrial apoptosis pathway, and may be a novel effective chemotherapeutic agent against gastric cancer.

Graphical abstract

Proposed mechanism by which esculetin promotes cancer cell apoptosis.

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