THZ1 is a potent, covalent inhibitor of the transcriptional CDKs, CDK7/12/13. Chemical genomic profiling of THZ1 across >1,000 diverse cancer cell lines revealed that EWS/FLI- rearranged Ewing sarcoma cells were remarkably sensitive to this molecule. We demonstrated that THZ1 inhibits the phosphorylation of the C-terminal domain of RNA Polymerase II, decreased colony formation capacity, and induced apoptosis in a dose-dependent manner in Ewing sarcoma cell lines. Using selective CDK7 and CDK12/13 inhibitors, we revealed that the primary target of THZ1 in Ewing sarcoma is CDK12/13. Genetic suppression of CDK12, but not CDK13, induced strong anti-viability effects, confirming CDK12 as the primary target. Treatment of Ewing sarcoma cell lines with THZ531, a novel CDK12/13 selective inhibitor, preferentially repressed genes involved in DNA damage repair. Additionally, suppression of EWS/FLI rendered Ewing sarcoma cells resistant to THZ531 and partially rescued the anti-viability effects of CDK12 knockdown. These results suggest that EWS/FLI imparts vulnerability to DNA damage repair inhibition and implicate a synthetic lethal relationship between the tumor-specific expression of EWS/FLI and CDK12 inhibition. Furthermore, we demonstrated that CDK12 and PARP inhibitors are highly synergistic in vitro, inducing widespread yH2AX foci formation. Interestingly, THZ531 impairs the ability of the PARP inhibitor, olaparib, to induce RAD51 foci formation, suggesting that THZ531 specifically causes a defect in homologous recombination repair. Moreover, we observed striking synergy of THZ1 and olaparib in two mouse models of Ewing sarcoma with limited toxicity observed. These findings have important translational significance as clinical trials with PARP inhibitors as single agents in Ewing sarcoma failed to demonstrate efficacy, highlighting the need to identify combination therapies that will enhance the activity of PARP inhibition. We anticipate that CDK12 and PARP inhibitor combinations will be of therapeutic interest in other ETS-rearranged tumors, as well as tumors with defects in DNA repair.
Citation Format: Amanda L. Balboni, Bjorn Stolte, Amy Saur Conway, Gabriela Alexe, Emily Jue Wang, Nicholas Kwiatkowski, Tinghu Zhang, Brian J. Abraham, Peter Kalev, Dipanjan Chowdhury, Cyril H. Benes, Richard A. Young, Nathanael S. Gray, Kimberly Stegmaier. Synthetic lethality of CDK12 inhibition in tumors with EWS/FLI rearrangements [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting 2017; 2017 Apr 1-5; Washington, DC. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2017;77(13 Suppl):Abstract nr 1118. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2017-1118