Cell 2018 11 25;175(5):1244-1258.e26. Epub 2018 Oct 25.
Fels Institute for Cancer Research, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19140, USA. Electronic address:
Cyclin-dependent kinase 9 (CDK9) promotes transcriptional elongation through RNAPII pause release. We now report that CDK9 is also essential for maintaining gene silencing at heterochromatic loci. Through a live cell drug screen with genetic confirmation, we discovered that CDK9 inhibition reactivates epigenetically silenced genes in cancer, leading to restored tumor suppressor gene expression, cell differentiation, and activation of endogenous retrovirus genes. CDK9 inhibition dephosphorylates the SWI/SNF protein BRG1, which contributes to gene reactivation. By optimization through gene expression, we developed a highly selective CDK9 inhibitor (MC180295, IC50 = 5 nM) that has broad anti-cancer activity in vitro and is effective in in vivo cancer models. Additionally, CDK9 inhibition sensitizes to the immune checkpoint inhibitor α-PD-1 in vivo, making it an excellent target for epigenetic therapy of cancer.