Chemopreventive targeted treatment of head and neck precancer by Wee1 inhibition

Sci Rep. 2020 Feb 11;10(1):2330. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-58509-2.


HPV-negative head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) develop in precancerous changes in the mucosal lining of the upper-aerodigestive tract. These precancerous cells contain cancer-associated genomic changes and cause primary tumors and local relapses. Therapeutic strategies to eradicate these precancerous cells are very limited. Using functional genomic screens, we identified the therapeutic vulnerabilities of premalignant mucosal cells, which are shared with fully malignant HNSCC cells. We screened 319 previously identified tumor-lethal siRNAs on a panel of cancer and precancerous cell lines as well as primary fibroblasts. In total we identified 147 tumor-essential genes including 34 druggable candidates. Of these 34, 13 were also essential in premalignant cells. We investigated the variable molecular basis of the vulnerabilities in tumor and premalignant cell lines and found indications of collateral lethality. Wee1-like kinase (WEE1) was amongst the most promising targets for both tumor and precancerous cells. All four precancerous cell lines were highly sensitive to Wee1 inhibition by Adavosertib (AZD1775), while primary keratinocytes tolerated this inhibitor. Wee1 inhibition caused induction of DNA damage during S-phase followed by mitotic failure in (pre)cancer cells. In conclusion, we uncovered Wee1 inhibition as a promising chemopreventive strategy for precancerous cells, with comparable responses as fully transformed HNSCC cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Cell Cycle
  • Cell Cycle Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Cell Cycle Proteins / genetics
  • Cell Cycle Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Movement
  • Cell Proliferation
  • DNA Damage
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / pathology
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • High-Throughput Screening Assays
  • Humans
  • Precancerous Conditions / genetics
  • Precancerous Conditions / pathology
  • Precancerous Conditions / prevention & control*
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / genetics
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / metabolism
  • RNA, Small Interfering / genetics*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • Cell Cycle Proteins
  • RNA, Small Interfering
  • Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • WEE1 protein, human