CDK7 Inhibition is Effective in all the Subtypes of Breast Cancer: Determinants of Response and Synergy with EGFR Inhibition

Cells. 2020 Mar 6;9(3):638. doi: 10.3390/cells9030638.


CDK7, a transcriptional cyclin-dependent kinase, is emerging as a novel cancer target. Triple-negative breast cancers (TNBC) but not estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancers have been reported to be uniquely sensitive to the CDK7 inhibitor THZ1 due to the inhibition of a cluster of TNBC-specific genes. However, bioinformatic analysis indicates that CDK7 RNA expression is associated with negative prognosis in all the major subtypes of breast cancer. To further elucidate the effects of CDK7 inhibition in breast cancer, we profiled a panel of cell lines representing different breast cancer subtypes. THZ1 inhibited cell growth in all subtypes (TNBC, HER2+, ER+, and HER2+/ER+) with no apparent subtype selectivity. THZ1 inhibited CDK7 activity and induced G1 arrest and apoptosis in all the tested cell lines, but THZ1 sensitivity did not correlate with CDK7 inhibition or CDK7 expression levels. THZ1 sensitivity across the cell line panel did not correlate with TNBC-specific gene expression but it was found to correlate with the differential inhibition of three genes: CDKN1B, MYC and transcriptional coregulator CITED2. Response to THZ1 also correlated with basal CITED2 protein expression, a potential marker of CDK7 inhibitor sensitivity. Furthermore, all of the THZ1-inhibited genes examined were inducible by EGF but THZ1 prevented this induction. THZ1 had synergistic or additive effects when combined with the EGFR inhibitor erlotinib, with no outward selectivity for a particular subtype of breast cancer. These results suggest a potential broad utility for CDK7 inhibitors in breast cancer therapy and the potential for combining CDK7 and EGFR inhibitors.

Keywords: CDK7; CITED2; EGFR; breast cancer; transcription.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Combined Chemotherapy Protocols / pharmacology
  • Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / enzymology
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase-Activating Kinase
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases / biosynthesis
  • Drug Synergism
  • ErbB Receptors / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Erlotinib Hydrochloride / administration & dosage
  • Erlotinib Hydrochloride / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Gene Expression / drug effects
  • Humans
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Phenylenediamines / administration & dosage
  • Phenylenediamines / pharmacology
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / administration & dosage
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Pyrimidines / administration & dosage
  • Pyrimidines / pharmacology
  • Repressor Proteins / biosynthesis
  • Repressor Proteins / genetics
  • Survival Analysis
  • Trans-Activators / biosynthesis
  • Trans-Activators / genetics
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / enzymology*


  • CITED2 protein, human
  • Phenylenediamines
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Pyrimidines
  • Repressor Proteins
  • THZ1 compound
  • Trans-Activators
  • Erlotinib Hydrochloride
  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase-Activating Kinase
  • CDK7 protein, human