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Open Access Research article

Astragalus saponins downregulate vascular endothelial growth factor under cobalt chloride-stimulated hypoxia in colon cancer cells

Pui-Ching Law, Kathy K Auyeung, Lok-Yi Chan and Joshua K Ko*

Author Affiliations

Center for Cancer and Inflammation Research, School of Chinese Medicine, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong SAR, China

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012, 12:160  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-12-160

Published: 19 September 2012



Our ongoing research has revealed that total saponins extracted from the medicinal herb Radix Astragali (AST) exhibits significant growth-inhibitory and proapoptotic effects in human cancer cells. In the present study, the potential of AST in controlling angiogenesis was further investigated with elaboration of the underlying molecular mechanism in human colon cancer cell and tumor xenograft.


AST decreased the protein level of VEGF and bFGF in HCT 116 colon cancer cells in a time- and dose-dependent manner. Among the Akt/mTOR signal transduction molecules being examined, AST caused PTEN upregulation, reduction in Akt phosphorylation and subsequent activation of mTOR. AST also suppressed the induction of HIF-1α and VEGF under CoCl2-mimicked hypoxia. These effects were intensified by combined treatment of AST with the mTOR inhibitor rapamycin. Despite this, our data also indicate that AST could attenuate cobalt chloride-evoked COX-2 activation, while such effect on COX-2 and its downstream target VEGF was intensified when indomethacin was concurrently treated. The anti-carcinogenic action of AST was further illustrated in HCT 116 xenografted athymic nude mice. AST significantly suppressed tumor growth and reduced serum VEGF level in vivo. In the tumor tissues excised from AST-treated animals, protein level of p-Akt, p-mTOR, VEGF, VEGFR1 and VEGFR2 was down-regulated. Immunohistochemistry has also revealed that AST effectively reduced the level of COX-2 in tumor sections when compared with that in untreated control.


Taken together, these findings suggest that AST exerts anti-carcinogenic activity in colon cancer cells through modulation of mTOR signaling and downregulation of COX-2, which together reduce VEGF level in tumor cells that could potentially suppress angiogenesis.

Astragalus saponins; Hypoxia; VEGF; Akt/mTOR; COX-2; Colon cancer