Drug resistance to chemotherapy agents presents a major obstacle to the effective treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), a common type of liver cancer. Increasing evidence indicates a link between drug resistance and the recurrence of HCC. Polyphyllin I (PPI), a promising pharmaceutical candidate, has shown potential therapeutic advantages in the treatment of sorafenib-resistant hepatocellular carcinoma (SR-HCC cells). In this study, we sought to investigate the mechanism underlying the inhibitory effect of PPI on the invasion and metastasis of SR-HCC cells. Our in vitro studies included scratch wound-healing migration assays and transwell assays to examine PPI's effect on HCC cell migration and invasion. Flow cytometry was employed to analyze the accumulation or efflux of chemotherapy drugs. The results of these experiments demonstrated that PPI increased the susceptibility of HCC to sorafenib while inhibiting SR-HCC cell growth, migration, and invasion. Molecular docking analysis revealed that PPI exhibited a higher binding affinity with GRP78. Western blot analysis and immunofluorescence experiments showed that PPI reduced the expression of GRP78, E-cadherin, N-cadherin, Vimentin, and ABCG2 in SR-HCC cells.

Interference with and overproduction of GRP78 in vitro impacted the proliferation, migration, invasion, and metastasis of HCC cells. Further examination revealed that PPI hindered the expression of GRP78 protein, resulting in a suppressive effect on SR-HCC cell migration and invasion. Histological examination of tumor tissue substantiated that administering PPI via gavage to HepG2/S xenograft nude mice inhibited tumor growth and significantly reduced tumor size, as evidenced by xenograft experiments involving nude mice. Hematoxylin and eosin (HE) staining of tumor tissue specimens, along with immunohistochemistry (IHC), were conducted to evaluate the expression levels of Ki67, GRP78, N-cadherin, Vimentin, and ABCG2. The results indicated that PPI administration decreased the levels of proteins associated with metastasis and markers of drug resistance in tumor tissues, impeding tumor growth and spread. Overall, our findings demonstrated that PPI effectively suppressed the viability, proliferation, invasion, and metastasis of SR-HCC cells both in vitro and in vivo by modulating GRP78 activity. These findings provide new insights into the mechanism of PPI inhibition of SR-HCC cell invasion and metastasis, highlighting PPI as a potential treatment option for sorafenib-resistant HCC.