Triptolide is a bioactive ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine that exhibits diverse biologic properties, including anticancer properties. Among its many putative targets, this compound has been reported to bind to XPB, the largest subunit of general transcription factor TFIIH, and to cause degradation of the largest subunit Rpb1 of RNA polymerase II (RNAPII). In this study, we clarify multiple important questions concerning the significance and basis for triptolide action at this core target. Triptolide decreased Rpb1 levels in cancer cells in a manner that was correlated tightly with its cytotoxic activity. Compound exposure blocked RNAPII at promoters and decreased chromatin-bound RNAPII, both upstream and within all genes that were examined, also leading to Ser-5 hyperphosphorylation and increased ubiqutination within the Rbp1 carboxy-terminal domain. Notably, cotreatment with inhibitors of the proteasome or the cyclin-dependent kinase CDK7 inhibitors abolished the ability of triptolide to ablate Rpb1. Together, our results show that triptolide triggers a CDK7-mediated degradation of RNAPII that may offer an explanation to many of its therapeutic properties, including its robust and promising anticancer properties.
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