Network Pharmacology to Unveil the Biological Basis of Health-Strengthening Herbal Medicine in Cancer Treatment

Cancers (Basel). 2018 Nov 21;10(11):461. doi: 10.3390/cancers10110461.


Health-strengthening (Fu-Zheng) herbs is a representative type of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) widely used for cancer treatment in China, which is in contrast to pathogen eliminating (Qu-Xie) herbs. However, the commonness in the biological basis of health-strengthening herbs remains to be holistically elucidated. In this study, an innovative high-throughput research strategy integrating computational and experimental methods of network pharmacology was proposed, and 22 health-strengthening herbs were selected for the investigation. Additionally, 25 pathogen-eliminating herbs were included for comparison. First, based on network-based, large-scale target prediction, we analyzed the target profiles of 1446 TCM compounds. Next, the actions of 166 compounds on 420 antitumor or immune-related genes were measured using a unique high-throughput screening strategy by high-throughput sequencing, referred to as HTS². Furthermore, the structural information and the antitumor activity of the compounds in health-strengthening and pathogen-eliminating herbs were compared. Using network pharmacology analysis, we discovered that: (1) Functionally, the predicted targets of compounds from health strengthening herbs were enriched in both immune-related and antitumor pathways, similar to those of pathogen eliminating herbs. As a case study, galloylpaeoniflorin, a compound in a health strengthening herb Radix Paeoniae Alba (Bai Shao), was found to exert antitumor effects both in vivo and in vitro. Yet the inhibitory effects of the compounds from pathogen eliminating herbs on tumor cells proliferation as a whole were significantly stronger than those in health-strengthening herbs (p < 0.001). Moreover, the percentage of assay compounds in health-strengthening herbs with the predicted targets enriched in the immune-related pathways (e.g., natural killer cell mediated cytotoxicity and antigen processing and presentation) were significantly higher than that in pathogen-eliminating herbs (p < 0.05). This finding was supported by the immune-enhancing effects of a group of compounds from health-strengthening herbs indicated by differentially expressed genes in the HTS² results. (2) Compounds in the same herb may exhibit the same or distinguished mechanisms in cancer treatment, which was demonstrated as the compounds influence pathway gene expressions in the same or opposite directions. For example, acetyl ursolic acid and specnuezhenide in a health-strengthening herb Fructus Ligustri lucidi (Nv Zhen Zi) both upregulated gene expressions in T cell receptor signaling pathway. Together, this study suggested greater potentials in tumor immune microenvironment regulation and tumor prevention than in direct killing tumor cells of health-strengthening herbs generally, and provided a systematic strategy for unveiling the commonness in the biological basis of health-strengthening herbs in cancer treatment.

Keywords: cancer treatment; health strengthening herb; high-throughput analysis; network pharmacology; network target; traditional Chinese medicine.