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The NF-kappa B inhibitor, celastrol, could enhance the anti-cancer effect of gambogic acid on oral squamous cell carcinoma

Di He14, Qin Xu12, Ming Yan12, Ping Zhang12, Xiaojian Zhou12, Zhiyuan Zhang12, Wenhu Duan3, Laiping Zhong1, Dongxia Ye2 and Wantao Chen12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, College of Stomatology, Ninth People's Hospital, Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, Shanghai 200011, PR China

2 Laboratory of Oral Tumor and Oral Biology, Shanghai Key Laboratory of Stomatology and Shanghai Research Institute of Stomatology, Shanghai 200011, PR China

3 Department of Medicinal Chemistry, Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai 201203, PR China

4 Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Second Affiliated Hospital, Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Hangzhou 310009, PR China

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BMC Cancer 2009, 9:343  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-9-343

Published: 25 September 2009



Gambogic acid (GA) is a major active ingredient of gamboge, a widely used traditional Chinese medicine that has been reported to be a potent cytotoxic agent against some malignant tumors. Many studies have shown that the NF-kappa B signaling pathway plays an important role in anti-apoptosis and the drug resistance of tumor cells during chemotherapy. In this study, the effects and mechanisms of GA and the NF-kappa B inhibitor celastrol on oral cancer cells were investigated.


Three human oral squamous cell carcinoma cell lines, Tca8113, TSCC and NT, were treated with GA alone, celastrol alone or GA plus celastrol. Cytotoxicity was assessed by MTT assay. The rate of apoptosis was examined with annexin V/PI staining as well as transmission electronic microscopy in Tca8113 cells. The level of constitutive NF-kappa B activity in oral squamous cell carcinoma cell lines was determined by immunofluorescence assays and nuclear extracts and electrophoretic mobility shift assays (EMSAs) in vitro. To further investigate the role of NF-kappa B activity in GA and celastrol treatment in oral squamous cell carcinoma, we used the dominant negative mutant SR-IκBα to inhibit NF-kappa B activity and to observe its influence on the effect of GA.


The results showed that GA could inhibit the proliferation and induce the apoptosis of the oral squamous cell carcinoma cell lines and that the NF-kappa B pathway was simultaneously activated by GA treatment. The minimal cytotoxic dose of celastrol was able to effectively suppress the GA-induced NF-kappa B pathway activation. Following the combined treatment with GA and the minimal cytotoxic dose of celastrol or the dominant negative mutant SR-IκBα, proliferation was significantly inhibited, and the apoptotic rate of Tca8113 cells was significantly increased.


The combination of GA and celastrol has a synergistic antitumor effect. The effect can be primarily attributed to apoptosis induced by a decrease in NF-kappa B pathway activation. The NF-kappa B signaling pathway plays an important role in this process. Therefore, combining GA and celastrol may be a promising modality for treating oral squamous cell carcinoma.