Targeting transcription cycles in cancer

Nat Rev Cancer. 2022 Jan;22(1):5-24. doi: 10.1038/s41568-021-00411-8. Epub 2021 Oct 21.


Accurate control of gene expression is essential for normal development and dysregulation of transcription underpins cancer onset and progression. Similar to cell cycle regulation, RNA polymerase II-driven transcription can be considered as a unidirectional multistep cycle, with thousands of unique transcription cycles occurring in concert within each cell. Each transcription cycle comprises recruitment, initiation, pausing, elongation, termination and recycling stages that are tightly controlled by the coordinated action of transcriptional cyclin-dependent kinases and their cognate cyclins as well as the opposing activity of transcriptional phosphatases. Oncogenic dysregulation of transcription can entail defective control of gene expression, either at select loci or more globally, impacting a large proportion of the genome. The resultant dependency on the core-transcriptional machinery is believed to render 'transcriptionally addicted' cancers sensitive to perturbation of transcription. Based on these findings, small molecules targeting transcriptional cyclin-dependent kinases and associated proteins hold promise for the treatment of cancer. Here, we utilize the transcription cycles concept to explain how dysregulation of these finely tuned gene expression processes may drive tumorigenesis and how therapeutically beneficial responses may arise from global or selective transcriptional perturbation. This conceptual framework helps to explain tumour-selective transcriptional dependencies and facilitates the rational design of combination therapies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases / genetics
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Oncogenes
  • RNA Polymerase II / genetics
  • RNA Polymerase II / metabolism
  • Transcription, Genetic*


  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinases
  • RNA Polymerase II