Calycosin is a bioactive isoflavonoid of the medicinal plant Astragalus membranaceus that exhibits a wide range of pharmacological properties. In the present study, we have attempted to explore the anti-tumorigenic potential of calycosin in pancreatic cancer.
MTT assay was used to determine cancer cell viability. Cell cycle analysis and detection of apoptosis were performed using flow cytometry. A wound healing assay was employed to study the migratory activity of cancer cells. Western blotting and RT-PCR were used to explore the mechanism by assessing the target proteins and genes. An orthotopic tumor xenograft mouse model was also used to study the drug effects in vivo.
Calycosin inhibited the growth of pancreatic cancer cells by inducing p21-induced cell cycle arrest and caspase-dependent apoptosis. Alternatively, it also promoted MIA PaCa-2 cell migration by eliciting epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) and matrix metalloproteinase activation. In vivo study has confirmed that calycosin would provoke the pro-invasive and angiogenic drive and subsequent EMT in pancreatic tumors. Further mechanistic study suggests that induction of the Raf/MEK/ERK pathway and facilitated polarization of M2 tumor-associated macrophage in the tumor microenvironment both contribute to the pro-metastatic potential of calycosin. These events appear to be associated with increased expression of TGF-β1 at both transcriptional and post-translational levels, which may explain the paradoxical drug actions since TGF-β has been implicated to play dual roles as both tumor suppressor and tumor promoter in pancreatic cancer development.
Findings of this study provide innovative insights about the impact of calycosin in pancreatic cancer progression through induction of cell cycle arrest and apoptosis while possessing certain tumor-promoting property by modulation of the tumor microenvironment.

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