Compensatory induction of MYC expression by sustained CDK9 inhibition via a BRD4-dependent mechanism.

PMID 26083714


CDK9 is the kinase subunit of positive transcription elongation factor b (P-TEFb) that enables RNA polymerase (Pol) II's transition from promoter-proximal pausing to productive elongation. Although considerable interest exists in CDK9 as a therapeutic target, little progress has been made due to lack of highly selective inhibitors. Here, we describe the development of i-CDK9 as such an inhibitor that potently suppresses CDK9 phosphorylation of substrates and causes genome-wide Pol II pausing. While most genes experience reduced expression, MYC and other primary response genes increase expression upon sustained i-CDK9 treatment. Essential for this increase, the bromodomain protein BRD4 captures P-TEFb from 7SK snRNP to deliver to target genes and also enhances CDK9's activity and resistance to inhibition. Because the i-CDK9-induced MYC expression and binding to P-TEFb compensate for P-TEFb's loss of activity, only simultaneously inhibiting CDK9 and MYC/BRD4 can efficiently induce growth arrest and apoptosis of cancer cells, suggesting the potential of a combinatorial treatment strategy.