Chemotherapy of advanced pancreatic cancer has mainly been gemcitabine-based for the past 15 years, with only limited effect. Recently, combination therapy that also targets checkpoint kinase 1 (CHK1) has become an attractive option. The central role of CHK1 in many DNA-damage response pathways, however, may result in undesired cytotoxicity in normal cells, causing side effects. We were searching for other target molecules of similar function that may be more specific and thus better suited for combination therapy. To this end a negative selection RNAi screen was performed in cell lines with small hairpin RNA molecules targeting over 10,000 genes. Genes that were found to be synthetically lethal with gemcitabine and whose proteins act upstream of CHK1 were characterised in more detail. In particular, the inhibition of RAD17 potentiated gemcitabine cytotoxicity in the pancreatic cancer cell lines BxPC-3 and MiaPaca-2 and in the primary cell line JoPaca-1 that closely resembles primary tumour tissue. Further analysis showed that the synergistic effect of RAD17 knockdown and gemcitabine leads to forced mitotic entry of cells arrested in S phase by gemcitabine treatment, resulting in asymmetric DNA distribution during anaphase followed by DNA fragmentation and finally cell death by mitotic catastrophe. Our data suggest RAD17 as a novel target protein for gemcitabine combination therapy supplementing or complementing inhibition of CHK1. In contrast to CHK1, RAD17 knockdown by itself does not lead to abnormal DNA segregation, suggesting a more specific action.
Keywords: ATR/CHK1 signalling pathway; Gemcitabine; Gemcitabine-combination therapy; Pancreatic cancer; RAD17; shRNA screening.