Berberine-induced apoptosis in human breast cancer cells is mediated by reactive oxygen species generation and mitochondrial-related apoptotic pathway

Tumour Biol. 2015 Feb;36(2):1279-88. doi: 10.1007/s13277-014-2754-7. Epub 2014 Oct 29.


Berberine has drawn extensive attention toward their wide range of biochemical and pharmacological effects, including antineoplastic effect in recent years, but the precise mechanisms remain unclear. Treatment of human breast cancer cells (MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cells) with berberine induced inhibition of cell viability in concentration- and time-dependent manner irrespective of their estrogen receptor (ER) expression. Hoechst33342 staining confirmed berberine induced breast cancer cell apoptosis in time-dependent manner. Because apoptosis induction is considered to be a crucial strategy for cancer prevention and therapy, berberine may be an effective chemotherapeutic agent against breast cancer. To explore the precise mechanism, berberine-induced oxidative stress and mitochondrial-related apoptotic pathway in human breast cancer cells were investigated in this study. In both MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 cells, berberine increased the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which activated the pro-apoptotic JNK signaling. Phosphorylated JNK triggered mitochondria membrane potential (ΔΨm) depolarization and downregulation expression of anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2 concomitant with the upregulation expression of pro-apoptotic protein Bax. Downregulation of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family protein in parallel with loss of ΔΨm, leading to increased the release of cytochrome c and apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF) from mitochondria, and eventually triggered the caspase-dependent and caspase-independent apoptosis. Taken together, our study reveled that berberine exerted an antitumor activity in breast cancer cells by reactive oxygen species generation and mitochondrial-related apoptotic pathway. These finding provide an insight into the potential of berberine for breast cancer therapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Berberine / administration & dosage*
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Caspase 3 / biosynthesis
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Female
  • Humans
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Membrane Potential, Mitochondrial / drug effects
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / biosynthesis
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Berberine
  • Caspase 3