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Mol Cancer Ther. 2020 Mar 3. pii: molcanther.0775.2019. doi: 10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-19-0775. [Epub ahead of print]

CDK9 Blockade Exploits Context-Dependent Transcriptional Changes to Improve Activity and Limit Toxicity of Mithramycin for Ewing Sarcoma.

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Center for Cancer and Cell Biology, Van Andel Institute.
Pharmacology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Cancer Biology, Van Andel Institute.
Department of Bioinformatics and Biostatistics, Van Andel Institute.
Bioinformatics and Biostatistics Core, Van Andel Institute.
The Free Radicals in Medicine Core, Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Division of Preclinical Innovation, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health.
Discovery Oncology, Genentech.
Genetics Branch, National Cancer Institute.
USC Norris Cancer Center, Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.
Division of Oncology, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia


There is a need to develop novel approaches to improve the balance between efficacy and toxicity for transcription factor targeted therapies. In this study, we exploit context dependent differences in RNAPII processivity as an approach to improve the activity and limit the toxicity of the EWS-FLI1 targeted small molecule, mithramycin, for Ewing sarcoma. The clinical activity of mithramycin for Ewing sarcoma is limited by off-target liver toxicity that restricts the serum concentration to levels insufficient to inhibit EWS-FLI1. In this study, we perform an siRNA screen of the druggable genome followed by a matrix drug screen to identify mithramycin potentiators and a synergistic "class" effect with CDK9 inhibitors. These CDK9 inhibitors enhanced the mithramycin-mediated suppression of the EWS-FLI1 transcriptional program leading to a shift in the IC50 and striking regressions of Ewing sarcoma xenografts. In order to determine if these compounds may also be liver protective, we performed a qPCR screen of all known liver toxicity genes in HepG2 cells to identify mithramycin-driven transcriptional changes that contribute to the liver toxicity. Mithramycin induces expression of the BTG2 gene in HepG2 but not Ewing sarcoma cells which leads to a liver-specific accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). siRNA silencing of BTG2 rescues the induction of ROS and the cytotoxicity of mithramycin in these cells. Furthermore, CDK9 inhibition blocked the induction of BTG2 to limit cytotoxicity in HepG2, but not Ewing sarcoma cells. These studies provide the basis for a synergistic and less toxic EWS-FLI1 targeted combination therapy for Ewing sarcoma.

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