Network pharmacology is a novel approach that uses bioinformatics to predict and identify multiple drug targets and interactions in disease. Here, we used network pharmacology to investigate the mechanism by which triptolide acts in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). We first searched public databases for genes and proteins known to be associated with RA, as well as those predicted to be targets of triptolide, and then used Ingenuity Pathway Analysis (IPA) to identify enriched gene pathways and networks. Networks and pathways that overlapped between RA-associated proteins and triptolide target proteins were then used to predict candidate protein targets of triptolide in RA. The following proteins were found to occur in both RA-associated networks and triptolide target networks: CD274, RELA, MCL1, MAPK8, CXCL8, STAT1, STAT3, c-JUN, JNK, c-Fos, NF-κB, and TNF-α. Docking studies suggested that triptolide can fit in the binding pocket of the six top candidate triptolide target proteins (CD274, RELA, MCL1, MAPK8, CXCL8 and STAT1). The overlapping pathways were activation of Th1 and Th2 cells, macrophages, fibroblasts and endothelial cells in RA, while the overlapping networks were involved in cellular movement, hematological system development and function, immune cell trafficking, cell-to-cell signaling and interaction, inflammatory response, cellular function and maintenance, and cell death and survival. These results show that network pharmacology can be used to generate hypotheses about how triptolide exerts therapeutic effects in RA. Network pharmacology may be a useful method for characterizing multi-target drugs in complex diseases.
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