Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) has the second lowest 5-year survival rate (~16%) of all tumor types partly owing to the lack of effective therapeutic agents. Withaferin A (WA) is a bioactive molecule derived from Withania somnifera and the present study is designed to systemically investigate the anti-HCC efficacy of WA. WA inhibited growth, migration and invasion of HCC cells. Using a phospho-kinase screening array, we discovered that WA increased phosphorylation of ERK and p38 in HCC. Further analyses revealed a key role of ERK leading to increased phosphorylation of p90-ribosomal S6 kinase (RSK) and a concomitant activation of ETS-like transcription factor-1(ELK1) and Death Receptor protein-5 (DR5) in HCC. Importantly, oral administration of WA effectively inhibited HepG2-xenografts and DEN-induced-HCC in C57BL/6 mice. Analyses of WA-treated HepG2-xenografts and DEN-induced-HCC tumors showed elevated levels of ERK, RSK, ELK1 and DR5 along with decreased expression of Ki67. In silico analyses of HCC, utilizing published profiling studies showed an inverse correlation between DR5 and Ki67. These data showed the efficacy of WA as an effective agent for HCC inhibition and provided first in vitro and in vivo evidence supporting the key role of a novel crosstalk between WA, ERK/RSK, ELK1, and DR5 in HCC inhibition.
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