The Mediator complex-associated cyclin-dependent kinase CDK8 is an oncogenic transcription-regulating serine/threonine kinase that mediates multiple cancer-associated transcriptional pathways. Despite recent high-profile attention to CDK8 as a novel cancer drug target, very little is known about the function of CDK8’s closely related paralog CDK19. Using CRISPR/Cas9n system we generated CDK8/CDK19 single-knockout (CDK8-KO and CDK19-KO) and double-knockout (CDK8/19-dKO) derivatives of HEK293 cells. RNA-Seq was used to characterize the effects of a highly selective small-molecule CDK8/19 kinase inhibitor Senexin B on gene expression in the parental, single-knockout and double-knockout cell lines. This analysis was conducted in the absence or in the presence of TNF-alpha, an inducer of transcription factor NF-kappa-B that we have previously shown to be potentiated by CDK8. The following results were obtained. (1) CDK8 and CDK19 have complementary functions in stabilization of their partner Cyclin C (independent of their kinase activity) and phosphorylation of transcription factor STAT1 at S727 (dependent on the kinase activity). (2) Senexin B treatment affected gene expression in wild-type 293 cells but had almost no effect in CDK8/19-dKO cells, indicating a very high degree of target selectivity. (3) In contrast to the results with CDK8/19-dKO, most of the genes affected by Senexin B in the wild-type cells were also affected in CDK8-KO and CDK19-KO cells, indicating complementary functions of CDK8 and CDK19. (4) Re-expression of either CDK8 or CDK19, but not of a CDK8 kinase-dead (D173A) mutant, in CDK8/19-dKO cells restored CDK8/19 kinase-dependent gene expression as well as the regulatory effects of Senexin B. (5) Many more genes were inhibited rather than induced by Senexin B, indicating that CDK8/19 act primarily as positive regulators of transcription. (6) The total number of genes affected by Senexin B was greatly increased in cells treated with TNF-alpha, suggesting that cooperation with other transcription factors (such as NF-kappa-B) is the primary role of CDK8/19. Our results indicate that complete suppression of cancer-relevant activities of CDK8 requires simultaneous inhibition of both CDK8 and CDK19.

Citation Format: Mengqian Chen, Bing Hu, Hao Ji, Serena Altilia, Jiaxin Liang, Martina McDermott, Chang-uk Lim, Donald C. Porter, Eugenia Broude, Igor Roninson. Functional characterization of novel transcription-regulating cancer drug targets, CDK8 and CDK19, using CRISPR/Cas9 knockout and a highly selective CDK8/19 kinase inhibitor [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 1512. doi:10.1158/1538-7445.AM2017-1512