Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), including hepatitis C virus (HCV)-induced HCC, is a deadly disease highly refractory to chemotherapy, thus requiring the continuous identification of novel treatment strategies. Berberine (BBR) has been previously reported to inhibit hepatoma cell growth, but the main type of cell death elicited by BBR, and whether the alkaloid can inhibit hepatoma cells carrying HCV genomes, is unclear. Herein, we show that BBR treatment induced a biphasic cell death irrespective of the presence of HCV subgenomic replicon RNA, first triggering apoptosis that then progressed to necrosis between 24 and 48 h post-treatment. Furthermore, BBR treatment potentiated the HCV replicon-induced reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, inhibition of which with an antioxidant attenuated the cell death that was elicited by BBR in these cells. Moreover, BBR dampened the autophagic response in HCV RNA-positive or negative hepatoma cells, and pharmacological inhibition of autophagy conversely augmented the BBR-induced cell death. Finally, BBR inhibited the growth of Huh-7 cells that were persistently infected with the full-length genome HCV particles, and concomitant pharmacological inhibition of autophagy potentiated the killing of these cells by BBR. Our findings suggest that combining BBR with the inhibition of autophagy could be an attractive treatment strategy against HCC, irrespective of the presence of the HCV genome.
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