Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Molecular and Cellular Biology

First Advisor

Sallie Smith Schneider

Second Advisor

Hélène Cousin

Third Advisor

Nagendra Yadava

Subject Categories

Cell Biology | Molecular Biology


The root of the Tibetan plant Rhodiola crenulata is part of eastern traditional medicine. Studies have suggested that members of the Rhodiola genus display anticancer properties. In this study we examine the effect of R. crenulata in a cellular model of invasive breast cancer, this disease being the second cause of cancer death among women in the US. Deregulation of the Wnt/β-catenin pathway has been frequently observed in breast cancers and appears to have a key role in the transformation of benign cells to a malignant form. Although mutations of the Wnt growth factor are rarely observed in cancer, the Wnt signaling pathway is often up-regulated by either mutations that result in stabilization of β-catenin or by hypermethylation and subsequent loss of expression of Wnt signaling antagonists like secreted Frizzled-Related Protein 1 (SFRP1) (Hanahan and Weinberg 2000; Miyoshi, Rosner et al. 2002; Reya and Clevers 2005; Suzuki, Toyota et al. 2008) (Hanahan and Weinberg 2000; Miyoshi, Rosner et al. 2002; Reya and Clevers 2005; Suzuki, Toyota et al. 2008) (Hanahan and Weinberg 2000; Miyoshi, Rosner et al. 2002; Reya and Clevers 2005; Suzuki, Toyota et al. 2008). We used an engineered cell line in which SFRP1 expression has been knocked down. These cells were derived from 76NTert cell line, an immortalized human mammary epithelium cell line. The resulting 76NTert-siSFRP1 cells display a mesenchymal-like phenotype, invasive behavior and are more resistant to apoptosis triggered by anchorage independent conditions, or anoikis. Additionally we used a highly invasive estrogen receptor negative (ER-), progesterone receptor negative (PR-), Her2/neu negative (triple negative) breast cancer cells line MDA-MB-231. Treatment of MDA-MB-231 and 76NTert-siSFRP1 cells with an extract of R. crenulata inhibited migration and invasion of both cell types, as compared to untreated cells. Furthermore, R. crenulata sensitizes cells to anoikis but does not increase γ-irradiation induced cell death. We provide evidence that death induced by R. crenulata does not occur through the inhibition of an epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT). Taken together, our initial results suggest R. crenulata as a potential therapeutic agent for breast cancer patients with mutations in the Wnt/β-Catenin signaling pathway.

Additionally, we present evidence that R. crenulata exerts its anti-metastasis effect by inhibiting cell migration and increasing cell attachment to a substrate. We demonstrate that this effect occurs by R. crenulata’s modulation of the Rho GTPase effector ROCK1. We further show evidence that R. crenulata’s effect on ROCK is not limited to cancer cells (in vitro), but also affects isolated and intact embryonic tissues. We discovered that treatment of X. laevis embryos with R. crenulata can cause a spina bifida phenotype, suggesting (1) that compounds in R. crenulata may prove detrimental to a developing embryo, and (2) the active compounds in R. crenulata may prove useful in the study of developmental anomalies that lead to conditions such as spina bifida. More importantly, our results suggest that pregnant women should avoid taking R. crenulata-containing supplements during pregnancy. Compounds in R. crenulata may be contraindicative to the pregnancy and cause injury to a developing fetus. The information provided may help health providers offer better advice on natural supplements to expecting mothers. We also characterized and identified multiple R. crenulata compounds and report predicted protein targets for these compounds. Finally, we provide evidence that R. crenulata affects cancer cell metabolism and suggest potential protein targets of the chemical components of this extract. This study provides new information that will help dissect the mechanisms of action of the R. crenulata compounds and possible synergies amongst them.