Compound Kushen Injection suppresses human breast cancer stem-like cells by down-regulating the canonical Wnt/β-catenin pathway

J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2011 Oct 28;30(1):103. doi: 10.1186/1756-9966-30-103.


Background: Cancer stem cells (CSCs) play an important role in cancer initiation, relapse and metastasis. To date, no specific medicine has been found to target CSCs as they are resistant to most conventional therapies and proliferate indefinitely. Compound Kushen Injection (CKI) has been widely used for cancer patients with remarkable therapeutic effects in Chinese clinical settings for many years. This study focused on whether CKI could inhibit MCF-7 SP cells in vitro and in vivo.

Methods: The analysis of CKI on SP population and the main genes of Wnt signaling pathway were studied first. Then we studied the tumorigenicity of SP cells and the effects of CKI on SP cells in vivo. The mice inoculated with 10,000 SP cells were randomly divided into three groups (6 in each group) and treated with CKI, cisplatin and saline (as a control) respectively for 7 weeks. The tumor formation rates of each group were compared. The main genes and proteins of the Wnt signaling pathway were analyzed by RT-PCR and western blot.

Results: CKI suppressed the size of SP population (approximately 90%), and down-regulated the main genes of Wnt signaling pathway. We also determined that MCF-7 SP cells were more tumorigenic than non-SP and unsorted cells. The Wnt signaling pathway was up-regulated in tumors derived from SP cells compared with that in tumors from non-SP cells. The tumor formation rate of the CKI Group was 33% (2/6, P < 0.05), and that of Cisplatin Group was 50%(3/6, P < 0.05), whereas that of the Control Group was 100% (6/6).The RT-PCR and western blot results indicated that CKI suppressed tumor growth by down-regulating the Wnt/β-catenin pathway, while cisplatin activated the Wnt/β-catenin pathway and might spare SP cells.

Conclusions: It suggested that CKI may serve as a novel drug targeting cancer stem-like cells, though further studies are recommended.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / administration & dosage
  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemistry
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Down-Regulation / drug effects
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal / administration & dosage
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal / chemistry
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred NOD
  • Mice, SCID
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / drug effects*
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Wnt Proteins / metabolism*
  • Wnt Signaling Pathway / drug effects*
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays
  • beta Catenin / genetics
  • beta Catenin / metabolism*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Wnt Proteins
  • beta Catenin
  • kushen