Inhibition of CDK8 Mediator Kinase Suppresses Estrogen Dependent Transcription and the Growth of Estrogen Receptor Positive Breast Cancer
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Hormone therapy targeting estrogen receptor (ER) is the principal treatment for ER-positive breast cancers. However, many cancers develop resistance to hormone therapy while retaining ER expression. Identifying new druggable mediators of ER function can help to increase the efficacy of ER-targeting drugs. Cyclin-dependent kinase 8 (CDK8) is a Mediator complex-associated transcriptional regulator with oncogenic activities. Expression of CDK8, its paralog CDK19 and their binding partner Cyclin C are negative prognostic markers in breast cancer. Meta-analysis of transcriptome databases revealed an inverse correlation between CDK8 and ERα expression, suggesting that CDK8 could be functionally associated with ER. We have found that CDK8 inhibition by CDK8/19-selective small-molecule kinase inhibitors, by shRNA knockdown or by CRISPR/CAS9 knockout suppresses estrogen-induced transcription in ER-positive breast cancer cells; this effect was exerted downstream of ER. Estrogen addition stimulated the binding of CDK8 to the ER-responsive GREB1 gene promoter and CDK8/19 inhibition reduced estrogen-stimulated association of an elongation-competent phosphorylated form of RNA Polymerase II with GREB1. CDK8/19 inhibitors abrogated the mitogenic effect of estrogen on ER-positive cells and potentiated the growth-inhibitory effects of ER antagonist fulvestrant. Treatment of estrogen-deprived ER-positive breast cancer cells with CDK8/19 inhibitors strongly impeded the development of estrogen independence. In vivo treatment with a CDK8/19 inhibitor Senexin B suppressed tumor growth and augmented the effects of fulvestrant in ER-positive breast cancer xenografts. These results identify CDK8 as a novel downstream mediator of ER and suggest the utility of CDK8 inhibitors for ER-positive breast cancer therapy.