CDK9 Blockade Exploits Context-dependent Transcriptional Changes to Improve Activity and Limit Toxicity of Mithramycin for Ewing Sarcoma

Mol Cancer Ther. 2020 May;19(5):1183-1196. doi: 10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-19-0775. Epub 2020 Mar 3.


There is a need to develop novel approaches to improve the balance between efficacy and toxicity for transcription factor-targeted therapies. In this study, we exploit context-dependent differences in RNA polymerase II processivity as an approach to improve the activity and limit the toxicity of the EWS-FLI1-targeted small molecule, mithramycin, for Ewing sarcoma. The clinical activity of mithramycin for Ewing sarcoma is limited by off-target liver toxicity that restricts the serum concentration to levels insufficient to inhibit EWS-FLI1. In this study, we perform an siRNA screen of the druggable genome followed by a matrix drug screen to identify mithramycin potentiators and a synergistic "class" effect with cyclin-dependent kinase 9 (CDK9) inhibitors. These CDK9 inhibitors enhanced the mithramycin-mediated suppression of the EWS-FLI1 transcriptional program leading to a shift in the IC50 and striking regressions of Ewing sarcoma xenografts. To determine whether these compounds may also be liver protective, we performed a qPCR screen of all known liver toxicity genes in HepG2 cells to identify mithramycin-driven transcriptional changes that contribute to the liver toxicity. Mithramycin induces expression of the BTG2 gene in HepG2 but not Ewing sarcoma cells, which leads to a liver-specific accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). siRNA silencing of BTG2 rescues the induction of ROS and the cytotoxicity of mithramycin in these cells. Furthermore, CDK9 inhibition blocked the induction of BTG2 to limit cytotoxicity in HepG2, but not Ewing sarcoma cells. These studies provide the basis for a synergistic and less toxic EWS-FLI1-targeted combination therapy for Ewing sarcoma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibiotics, Antineoplastic / pharmacology*
  • Apoptosis
  • Bone Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Bone Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Bone Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase 9 / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions / prevention & control*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Plicamycin / pharmacology*
  • Sarcoma, Ewing / drug therapy*
  • Sarcoma, Ewing / metabolism
  • Sarcoma, Ewing / pathology
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Antibiotics, Antineoplastic
  • CDK9 protein, human
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase 9
  • Plicamycin