Theranostics 2020; 10(17):7906-7920. doi:10.7150/thno.45191

Research Paper

Therapeutic potential of targeting MKK3-p38 axis with Capsaicin for Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma

Chengyao Chiang1*, Min Zhang1*, Dian Wang2*, Tian Xiao1*, Lizhi Zhu3, Kai Chen4, Junrong Huang3, Jingying Huang1, Jiang Zhu1, Li Li1, Cheng Chen1, Yangchao Chen5, Hongyi Hu6, Wenqi Jiang7, Yongdong Zou1, Ting Wang2,8, Duo Zheng1✉

1. Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Regional Immunity and Diseases, Shenzhen University International Cancer Center, Department of Cell Biology and Genetics, School of Medicine, College of Life Sciences and Oceanography, Shenzhen University, Shenzhen 518055, China.
2. Xiangya School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Central South University, Changsha, 410013, China.
3. Institute of Translation Medicine, Shenzhen Second People's Hospital, The First Affiliated Hospital of Shenzhen University, Shenzhen, 518035, China.
4. School of Materials Science and Engineering, Central South University of Forestry and Technology, Changsha, 410004, China.
5. School of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, NT, Hong Kong.
6. Department of Otolaryngology, Peking University Shenzhen Hospital, Shenzhen, 518036, China.
7. Sun Yet-sen University Cancer Center, Guangzhou, China.
8. Guangzhou Henvcom Bioscience Co Ltd, Guangzhou, 510535, China.
*These authors contributed equally to this work.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( See for full terms and conditions.
Chiang C, Zhang M, Wang D, Xiao T, Zhu L, Chen K, Huang J, Huang J, Zhu J, Li L, Chen C, Chen Y, Hu H, Jiang W, Zou Y, Wang T, Zheng D. Therapeutic potential of targeting MKK3-p38 axis with Capsaicin for Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma. Theranostics 2020; 10(17):7906-7920. doi:10.7150/thno.45191. Available from

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Background: Capsaicin is an active compound found in plants of the Capsicum genus; it has a range of therapeutic benefits, including anti-tumor effects. Here we aimed to delineate the inhibitory effects of capsaicin on nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC).

Methods: The anti-cancer effects of capsaicin were confirmed in NPC cell lines and xenograft mouse models, using CCK-8, clonogenic, wound-healing, transwell migration and invasion assays. Co-immunoprecipitation, western blotting and pull-down assays were used to determine the effects of capsaicin on the MKK3-p38 axis. Cell proliferation and EMT marker expression were monitored in MKK3 knockdown (KD) or over-expression NPC cell lines treated with or without capsaicin. Finally, immunohistochemistry was performed on NPC specimens from NPC patients (n = 132) and the clinical relevance was analyzed.

Results: Capsaicin inhibited cell proliferation, mobility and promoted apoptosis in NPC cells. Then we found that capsaicin directly targets p38 for dephosphorylation. As such, MKK3-induced p38 activation was inhibited by capsaicin. Furthermore, we found that capsaicin-induced inhibition of cell motility was mediated by fucokinase. Xenograft models demonstrated the inhibitory effects of capsaicin treatment on NPC tumor growth in vivo, and analysis of clinical NPC samples confirmed that MKK3 phosphorylation was associated with NPC tumor growth and lymphoid node metastasis.

Conclusions: The MKK3-p38 axis represents a potential therapeutic target for capsaicin. MKK3 phosphorylation might serve as a biomarker to identify NPC patients most likely to benefit from adjunctive capsaicin treatment.

Keywords: Capsaicin, MKK3-p38, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, FUK, cell mobility