Altered RNA expression of repetitive sequences and retrotransposition are frequently seen in colorectal cancer, implicating a functional importance of repeat activity in cancer progression. We show the nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor 3TC targets activities of these repeat elements in colorectal cancer preclinical models with a preferential effect in p53-mutant cell lines linked with direct binding of p53 to repeat elements. We translate these findings to a human phase II trial of single-agent 3TC treatment in metastatic colorectal cancer with demonstration of clinical benefit in 9 of 32 patients. Analysis of 3TC effects on colorectal cancer tumorspheres demonstrates accumulation of immunogenic RNA:DNA hybrids linked with induction of interferon response genes and DNA damage response. Epigenetic and DNA-damaging agents induce repeat RNAs and have enhanced cytotoxicity with 3TC. These findings identify a vulnerability in colorectal cancer by targeting the viral mimicry of repeat elements.

Significance:

Colorectal cancers express abundant repeat elements that have a viral-like life cycle that can be therapeutically targeted with nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTI) commonly used for viral diseases. NRTIs induce DNA damage and interferon response that provide a new anticancer therapeutic strategy.

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