Tetrandrine, an activator of autophagy, induces autophagic cell death via PKC-α inhibition and mTOR-dependent mechanisms

Vincent Kam Wai Wong, Wu Zeng, Juan Chen, Xiao Jun Yao, Elaine Lai Han Leung, Qian Qian Wang, Pauline Chiu, Chi Bun Ko, Betty Yuen Kwan Law

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

51 Citations (Scopus)


Emerging evidence suggests the therapeutic role of autophagic modulators in cancer therapy. This study aims to identify novel traditional Chinese medicinal herbs as potential anti-tumor agents through autophagic induction, which finally lead to autophagy mediated-cell death in apoptosis-resistant cancer cells. Using bioactivity-guided purification, we identified tetrandrine (Tet) from herbal plant, Radix stephaniae tetrandrae, as an inducer of autophagy. Across a number of cancer cell lines, we found that breast cancer cells treated with tetrandrine show an increase autophagic flux and formation of autophagosomes. In addition, tetrandrine induces cell death in a panel of apoptosis-resistant cell lines that are deficient for caspase 3, caspase 7, caspase 3 and 7, or Bax-Bak respectively. We also showed that tetrandrine-induced cell death is independent of necrotic cell death. Mechanistically, tetrandrine induces autophagy that depends on mTOR inactivation. Furthermore, tetrandrine induces autophagy in a calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase kinase-β (CaMKK-β), 5' AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) independent manner. Finally, by kinase profiling against 300 WT kinases and computational molecular docking analysis, we showed that tetrandrine is a novel PKC-α inhibitor, which lead to autophagic induction through PKC-α inactivation. This study provides detailed insights into the novel cytotoxic mechanism of an anti-tumor compound originated from the herbal plant, which may be useful in promoting autophagy mediated- cell death in cancer cell that is resistant to apoptosis.
Original languageEnglish
Article number351
JournalFrontiers in Pharmacology
Issue numberJUN
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jun 2017


  • Apoptosis-resistant
  • Autophagy
  • MTOR
  • PKC-α
  • Tetrandrine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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