The use of innocuous naturally occurring compounds to overcome drug resistance and cancer recalcitrance is now in the forefront of cancer research. Thymoquinone (TQ) is a bioactive constituent of the volatile oil derived from seeds of Nigella sativa Linn. TQ has shown promising anti-carcinogenic and anti-tumor activities through different mechanisms. However, the effect of TQ on cell signaling and survival pathways in resistant cancer cells has not been fully delineated. Here, we report that TQ greatly inhibits doxorubicin-resistant human breast cancer MCF-7/DOX cell proliferation. TQ treatment increased cellular levels of PTEN proteins, resulting in a substantial decrease of phosphorylated Akt, a known regulator of cell survival. The PTEN expression was accompanied with elevation of PTEN mRNA. TQ arrested MCF-7/DOX cells at G2/M phase and increased cellular levels of p53 and p21 proteins. Flow cytometric analysis and agarose gel electrophoresis revealed a significant increase in Sub-G1 cell population and appearance of DNA ladders following TQ treatment, indicating cellular apoptosis. TQ-induced apoptosis was associated with disrupted mitochondrial membrane potential and activation of caspases and PARP cleavage in MCF-7/DOX cells. Moreover, TQ treatment increased Bax/Bcl2 ratio via up-regulating Bax and down-regulating Bcl2 proteins. More importantly, PTEN silencing by target specific siRNA enabled the suppression of TQ-induced apoptosis resulting in increased cell survival. Our results reveal that up-regulation of the key upstream signaling factor, PTEN, in MCF-7/DOX cells inhibited Akt phosphorylation, which ultimately causes increase in their regulatory p53 levels affecting the induction of G2/M cell cycle arrest and apoptosis. Overall results provide mechanistic insights for understanding the molecular basis and utility of the anti-tumor activity of TQ.
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