Combinative treatment of β-elemene and cetuximab is sensitive to KRAS mutant colorectal cancer cells by inducing ferroptosis and inhibiting epithelial-mesenchymal transformation

Theranostics. 2020 Apr 6;10(11):5107-5119. doi: 10.7150/thno.44705. eCollection 2020.


Background and Purpose: RAS mutations limit the effectiveness of anti-epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) monoclonal antibodies in combination with chemotherapy for metastatic colorectal cancer (mCRC) patients. Therefore, new cell death forms have focused on identifying indirect targets to inhibit Ras-induced oncogenesis. Recently, emerging evidence has shown the potential of triggering ferroptosis for cancer therapy, particularly for eradicating aggressive malignancies that are resistant to traditional therapies. Methods: KRAS mutant CRC cell HCT116 and Lovo were treated with cetuximab and β-elemene, a bioactive compound isolated from Chinese herb Curcumae Rhizoma. Ferroptosis and epithelial-mesenchymal transformation (EMT) were detected in vitro and in vivo. Orthotopic CRC animal model were established and the tumor growth was monitored by IVIS bioluminescence imaging. Tumor tissues were collected to determine ferroptosis effect and the expression of EMT markers after the treatment. Results: CCK-8 assay showed that synergetic effect was obtained when 125 µg/ml β-elemene was combined with 25 µg/ml cetuximab in KRAS mutant CRC cells. AV/PI staining suggested a non-apoptotic mode of cell death after the treatment with β-elemene and cetuximab. In vitro, β-elemene in combination with cetuximab was shown to induce iron-dependent reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulation, glutathione (GSH) depletion, lipid peroxidation, upregulation of HO-1 and transferrin, and downregulation of negative regulatory proteins for ferroptosis (GPX4, SLC7A11, FTH1, glutaminase, and SLC40A1) in KRAS mutant CRC cells. Meanwhile, combinative treatment of β-elemene and cetuximab inhibited cell migration and decreased the expression of mesenchymal markers (Vimentin, N-cadherin, Slug, Snail and MMP-9), but promoted the expression of epithelial marker E-cadherin. Moreover, ferroptosis inhibitors but not other cell death suppressors abrogated the effect of β-elemene in combination with cetuximab on KRAS mutant CRC cells. In vivo, co-treatment with β-elemene and cetuximab inhibited KRAS mutant tumor growth and lymph nodes metastases. Conclusions: Our data for the first time suggest that the natural product β-elemene is a new ferroptosis inducer and combinative treatment of β-elemene and cetuximab is sensitive to KRAS mutant CRC cells by inducing ferroptosis and inhibiting EMT, which will hopefully provide a prospective strategy for CRC patients with RAS mutations.

Keywords: KRAS mutation; colorectal cancer; epithelial-mesenchymal transformation; ferroptosis; β-elemene.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / pharmacology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Cetuximab / administration & dosage
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / drug effects
  • ErbB Receptors / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Female
  • Ferroptosis / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Nude
  • Mutation*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras) / genetics*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras) / metabolism
  • Sesquiterpenes / administration & dosage
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • KRAS protein, human
  • Sesquiterpenes
  • beta-elemene
  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras)
  • Cetuximab