Denbinobin is a phenanthraquinone derivative present in the stems of Ephemerantha lonchophylla. We showed that denbinobin induces apoptosis in human colorectal cancer cells (HCT-116) in a concentration-dependent manner. The addition of a pan-caspase inhibitor (zVAD-fmk) did not suppress the denbinobin-induced apoptotic effect, and denbinobin-induced apoptosis was not accompanied by processing of procaspase-3, -6, -7, -9, and -8. However, denbinobin triggered the translocation of the apoptosis-inducing factor (AIF) from the mitochondria into the nucleus. Small interfering RNA targeting of AIF effectively protected HCT-116 cells against denbinobin-induced apoptosis. Denbinobin treatment also caused DNA damage, activation of the p53 tumor suppressor gene, and upregulation of numerous downstream effectors (p21 WAF1/CIP1, Bax, PUMA, and NOXA). A HCT-116 xenograft model demonstrated the in vivo efficacy and low toxicity of denbinobin. Taken together, our findings suggest that denbinobin induces apoptosis of human colorectal cancer HCT-116 cells via DNA damage and an AIF-mediated pathway. These results indicate that denbinobin has potential as a novel anticancer agent.
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