Ursolic acid promotes apoptosis, autophagy, and chemosensitivity in gemcitabine-resistant human pancreatic cancer cells

Phytother Res. 2020 Aug;34(8):2053-2066. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6669. Epub 2020 Mar 17.


Gemcitabine (GEM) resistance in pancreatic adenocarcinoma mediated by the receptor for advanced glycation end products (RAGE) has been demonstrated. Therefore, investigating the safety and the potential of new auxiliary methods for pancreatic cancer treatment is urgent. Ursolic acid (UA), a natural pentacyclic triterpenoid found in apple peels, rosemary, and thyme, has been reported to have anticancer capacity. This study aimed to reveal the underlying mechanisms of UA in cell death and drug enhancement, especially in GEM-resistant pancreatic cancer cells. First, GEM-resistant cells (MIA Paca-2GEMR cells) were established by incrementally increasing GEM culture concentrations. UA treatment reduced cell viability through cell cycle arrest and endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress, resulting in apoptosis and autophagy in a dose-dependent manner in MIA Paca-2 and MIA Paca-2GEMR cells. High RAGE expression in MIA Paca-2GEMR cells was suppressed by UA treatment. Interestingly, knocking down RAGE expression showed similar UA-induced effects in both cell lines. Remarkably, UA had a drug-enhancing effect by decreasing cell viability and increasing cell cytotoxicity when combined with GEM treatment. In conclusions, UA triggered ER stress, subsequently regulating apoptosis- and autophagy-related pathways and increasing GEM chemosensitivity in pancreatic cancer cells by inhibiting the expression of RAGE.

Keywords: RAGE; apoptosis; autophagy; gemcitabine resistance; pancreatic cancer; ursolic acid.

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / pharmacology
  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic / therapeutic use*
  • Apoptosis
  • Autophagy
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Humans
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / mortality
  • Survival Rate
  • Triterpenes / pharmacology
  • Triterpenes / therapeutic use*


  • Antineoplastic Agents, Phytogenic
  • Triterpenes
  • ursolic acid