Fusion-transcription factors (fusion-TFs) represent a class of oncoproteins that drive tumorigenesis by activating an aberrant transcriptional program to promote the development and survival of cancer cells. Unlike fusion oncoproteins involving readily druggable proteins such as kinases, fusion-TFs are difficult to therapeutically target. Recent studies have suggested protein degradation as a novel strategy in targeting oncogenic transcription factors. However, the molecular and functional mechanisms that regulate fusion-TFs’ degradation/stability are unknown. Ewing sarcoma is the second most common bone cancer in children and is driven by EWS-ETS fusion-TFs, most commonly EWS/FLI (~85%). EWS/FLI acts as a pioneer transcription factor to activate oncogenic gene expression by chromatin remodeling that drives the tumorigenesis and survival of Ewing sarcoma tumors. Despite this, there are no clinically validated targeted therapies against EWS/FLI. Ewing sarcoma has a relatively quiet genome and lacks recurrent mutations, which hinders target identification for therapeutic intervention. Thus, we examined whether a protein degradation strategy can be exploited to target EWS/FLI by investigating the molecular and functional mechanisms by which EWS/FLI protein stability/degradation is regulated. In a genome-scale, flow cytometry-based CRISPR-Cas9 screen, we discovered that tripartite motif containing 8 (TRIM8) is a novel E3 ubiquitin for EWS/FLI. Biochemical studies showed that TRIM directly binds and ubiquitinates EWS/FLI for proteasome-dependent degradation. Moreover, we identified TRIM8 as a top enriched and selective dependency in Ewing sarcoma in a genome-scale CRISPR-Cas9 depletion screen. We determined that TRIM8 knockout increased EWS/FLI protein levels and induced apoptosis of Ewing sarcoma cells in vitro and reduced tumor growth in vivo. Consistent with TRIM8 as an E3 ligase for EWS/FLI, overexpression of TRIM8 reduced EWS/FLI protein levels and decreased growth. TRIM8 lacking the E3 ligase domain (TRIM8E3) functioned as a dominant negative, leading to increased EWS/FLI and decreased growth of Ewing sarcoma cells. To investigate whether upregulated EWS/FLI protein expression is mediating the TRIM8 knockout phenotype, we engineered Ewing sarcoma cell line by concurrently knocking out endogenous EWS/FLI using CRISPR and expressing degradable EWS/FLI (FKBP12F36V-EWS/FLI) using the dTAG system. The dTAG molecule is a heterobifunctional molecule that specifically binds to FKBP12F36V and an E3 ligase complex for targeted protein degradation. Using this degradable EWS/FLI cell model, we showed that TRIM8 suppression phenotype can be rescued by degrading the upregulated EWS/FLI protein expression to control levels. Our results demonstrate that the protein stability of fusion-TF oncoproteins is highly regulated to maintain the expression at a precise level and highlight the critical importance of oncogene dosage in cancer cell survival.

Citation Format: Bo Kyung Alex Seong, Shan Lin, Katherine Donovan, Amanda Robichaud, Bjorn Stolte, Emily Wang, Neekesh Dharia, Behnam Nabet, Federica Piccioni, Nathanael Gray, Eric Fischer, Kimberly Stegmaier. Targeting EWS/FLI fusion oncoprotein stability/degradation in Ewing sarcoma [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the AACR Special Conference on the Advances in Pediatric Cancer Research; 2019 Sep 17-20; Montreal, QC, Canada. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; Cancer Res 2020;80(14 Suppl):Abstract nr B50.