Introduction Sorafenib is the only drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for metastatic hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Triptolide, a diterpene triepoxide, exhibits antineoplastic properties in multiple tumor cell types. In this study, we examined the effects of these agents and their combination on HCC in vitro and in vivo models. Methods HuH-7 and PLC/PRF/5 cells were treated with triptolide (50 nM), sorafenib (1.25 or 2.5 μM), or a combination of both. Cell viability assay (CCK-8), caspase 3&7 activation, and nuclear factor κB assays were performed. For in vivo studies, 40 mice were implanted with subcutaneous HuH7 tumors and divided into four treatment groups (n = 10); saline control, sorafenib 10 mg/kg PO daily (S), Minnelide (a prodrug of triptolide) 0.21 mg/kg intraperitoneally7 daily (M), and combination of both (C). Tumor volumes were assessed weekly. Results The combination of triptolide and sorafenib was superior to either drug alone in inducing apoptosis and decreasing viability, whereas triptolide alone was sufficient to decrease nuclear factor κB activity. After 2 weeks of treatment, tumor growth inhibition rates were S = 59%, M = 84%, and C = 93%, whereas tumor volumes in control animals increased by 9-fold. When crossed over to combination treatment, control mice tumor growth volumes plateaued over the following 4 weeks. Conclusion The combination of sorafenib and triptolide is superior to single drug treatment in increasing cell death and apoptosis in vitro. Combining sorafenib with Minnelide inhibited tumor growth with greater efficacy than single-agent treatments. Importantly, in vivo combination treatment allowed for using a lesser dose of sorafenib (10 mg/kg), which is less than 10% of currently prescribed dose for HCC patients. Therefore, combination treatment could have translational potential in the management of HCC.
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