Advanced hepatocarcinoma (HCC) is an aggressive malignancy with poor prognosis and limited treatment options. Alterations of the cyclin D-CDK4/6-Rb pathway occur frequently in HCC, providing the rationale for its targeting at least in a molecular subset of HCC. In a panel of HCC cell lines, we investigated whether the CDK4/6 inhibitor palbociclib might improve the efficacy of regorafenib, a powerful multi-kinase inhibitor approved as second-line treatment for advanced HCC after sorafenib failure and currently under clinical investigation as first-line therapy in combination with immunotherapy. In Rb-proficient cells, the simultaneous drug combination, but not the sequential schedules, inhibited cell proliferation, either in short or in long-term experiments, and induced cell death more strongly than individual treatments. Moreover, the combination significantly reduced spheroid cell growth and inhibited cell migration/invasion. The superior efficacy of palbociclib plus regorafenib emerged also under hypoxia and was associated with a significant down-regulation of CDK4/6-Rb-myc and mTORC1/p70S6K signaling. Moreover, regorafenib suppressed palbociclib-induced expression of cyclin D1 contributing to the cytotoxic effects of the combination. Besides these inhibitory effects on cell viability/proliferation, palbociclib and regorafenib reduced glucose uptake, although this effect was dependent on the cell model and on the oxygen availability (normoxia or hypoxia). Palbociclib and regorafenib combination impaired glucose uptake and utilization, down-regulating basal and hypoxia-induced expression of HIF-1α, HIF-2α, GLUT-1, and MCT4 proteins as well as the activity/expression of glycolytic enzymes (HK2, PFKP, aldolase A, PKM2). In addition, regorafenib alone reduced mitochondrial respiration. The combined treatment impaired glucose metabolism and respiration without enhancing the effects of the single agents. Our findings provide pre-clinical evidence for the effectiveness of palbociclib and regorafenib combination in HCC cell models.
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