Thymoquinone exerts potent growth-suppressive activity on leukemia through DNA hypermethylation reversal in leukemia cells

Jiuxia Pang, Na Shen, Fei Yan, Na Zhao, Liping Dou, Lai Chu Wu, Christopher L. Seiler, Li Yu, Ke Yang, Veronika Bachanova, Eric Weaver, Natalia Y Tretyakova, Shujun Liu

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44 Scopus citations


Thymoquinone (TQ), a bioactive constituent of the volatile oil of Monarda fistulosa and Nigella sativa, possesses cancer-specific growth inhibitory effects, but the underlying molecular mechanisms remain largely elusive. We propose that TQ curbs cancer cell growth through dysfunction of DNA methyltransferase 1 (DNMT1). Molecular docking analysis revealed that TQ might interact with the catalytic pocket of DNMT1 and compete with co-factor SAM/SAH for DNMT1 inhibition. In vitro inhibitory assays showed that TQ decreases DNMT1 methylation activity in a dose-dependent manner with an apparent IC50 of 30 nM. Further, exposure of leukemia cell lines and patient primary cells to TQ resulted in DNMT1 downregulation, mechanistically, through dissociation of Sp1/NFkB complex from DNMT1 promoter. This led to a reduction of DNA methylation, a decrease of colony formation and an increase of cell apoptosis via the activation of caspases. In addition, we developed and validated a sensitive and specific LC-MS/MS method and successfully detected a dynamic change of TQ in mouse plasma after administration of TQ through the tail vein, and determined a tolerable dose of TQ to be 15 mg/kg in mouse. TQ administration into leukemiabearing mice induced leukemia regression, as indicated by the reversed splenomegaly and the inhibited leukemia cell growth in lungs and livers. Our study for the first time demonstrates that DNMT1-dependent DNA methylation mediates the anticancer actions of TQ, opening a window to develop TQ as a novel DNA hypomethylating agent for leukemia therapy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)34453-34467
Number of pages15
Issue number21
StatePublished - 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported partially by the Hormel Institution Fund, Prairie Pharms LLC Fund, National Cancer Institute Grants (R01CA149623, R21CA155915, 5P30CA077598-18), Minnesota Masonic Charities and the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial Fund.

Publisher Copyright:
© Pang et al.


  • Bioactive compounds
  • DNA methylation
  • DNA methyltransferase
  • Leukemia
  • Thymoquinone


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