TNIK Is a Therapeutic Target in Lung Squamous Cell Carcinoma and Regulates FAK Activation through Merlin

Cancer Discov. 2021 Jun;11(6):1411-1423. doi: 10.1158/2159-8290.CD-20-0797. Epub 2021 Jan 25.


Lung squamous cell carcinoma (LSCC) is the second most prevalent type of lung cancer. Despite extensive genomic characterization, no targeted therapies are approved for the treatment of LSCC. Distal amplification of the 3q chromosome is the most frequent genomic alteration in LSCC, and there is an urgent need to identify efficacious druggable targets within this amplicon. We identify the protein kinase TNIK as a therapeutic target in LSCC. TNIK is amplified in approximately 50% of LSCC cases. TNIK genetic depletion or pharmacologic inhibition reduces the growth of LSCC cells in vitro and in vivo. In addition, TNIK inhibition showed antitumor activity and increased apoptosis in established LSCC patient-derived xenografts. Mechanistically, we identified the tumor suppressor Merlin/NF2 as a novel TNIK substrate and showed that TNIK and Merlin are required for the activation of focal adhesion kinase. In conclusion, our data identify targeting TNIK as a potential therapeutic strategy in LSCC. SIGNIFICANCE: Targeted therapies have not yet been approved for the treatment of LSCC, due to lack of identification of actionable cancer drivers. We define TNIK catalytic activity as essential for maintaining LSCC viability and validate the antitumor efficacy of TNIK inhibition in preclinical models of LSCC.This article is highlighted in the In This Issue feature, p. 1307.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / drug therapy*
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / genetics
  • Cell Line, Tumor / drug effects
  • Epithelial Cells / drug effects
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Lung Neoplasms / genetics
  • Mice
  • Molecular Targeted Therapy
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases / genetics


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • TNIK protein, human