Compound found in popular sweet shown to inhibit cancer growth in new study

The investigation team at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) found isoliquiritigenin, a flavonoid isolated from liquorice, has anti-cancer properties.

Dr Joshua Ko Ka-Shun said isoliquiritigenin “possesses a unique property of inhibiting pancreatic cancer progression through the blockade of autophagy”.

Dr Ko added: “The blockade of late-stage autophagy in our experiments results in cancer cell death.”

To investigate the efficacy of isoliquiritigenin, found in liquorice, the scientists employed a mice tumour mode.

The mice, who were given tumours, were divided into three groups:

  • Mice given the chemotherapeutic drug gemcitabine (GEM)
  • Mice given isoliquiritigenin
  • Control group, where the mice were not given cancer treatment.

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In the isoliquiritigenin group, the mice were divided into two sub-sections, treated with either 30mg/kg or 60mg/kg of isoliquiritigenin.

On the 21st day of the experiment, the tumour volumes were:

  • Control group: 1,000 mm3
  • GEM group: 400 mm3
  • 30mg/kg isoliquiritigenin: 500 mm3
  • 60mg/kg isoliquiritigenin: 300 mm3.

While isoliquiritigenin was shown to suppress tumour size, comparable to current cancer treatment, the compound also resulted in fewer side effects.

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The team noted that isoliquiritigenin had fewer side effects in mice than GEM, including fewer cases of anaemia and body weight loss.

Dr Ko said: “The findings in this study open a new avenue for developing isoliquiritigenin as a novel autophagy inhibitor in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

“We hope to collaborate with other research partners to further evaluate the effectiveness and potential clinical application of isoliquiritigenin in treating pancreatic cancer.”

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Dr Ko is the Associate Professor of Teaching and Research Division of the School of Chinese Medicine at HKBU.

The research has been published in the international academic journal Phytomedicine.

These findings were also presented at the Annual Congress of the European Association for Cancer Research 2023 in Torino, Italy.

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