CDK12 inhibition mediates DNA damage and is synergistic with sorafenib treatment in hepatocellular carcinoma.



Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most frequent malignancies and a major leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. Several therapeutic options like sorafenib and regorafenib provide only modest survival benefit to patients with HCC. This study aims to identify novel druggable candidate genes for patients with HCC.


Our data highlight the potential of CDK12 as a drug target for patients with HCC. The striking synergy of THZ531 and sorafenib suggests a potential combination therapy for this difficult to treat cancer.


A non-biased CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) loss-of-function genetic screen targeting all known human kinases was performed to identify vulnerabilities of HCC cells. Whole-transcriptome sequencing (RNA-Seq) and bioinformatics analyses were performed to explore the mechanisms of the action of a cyclin-dependent kinase 12 (CDK12) inhibitor in HCC cells. Multiple in vitro and in vivo assays were used to study the synergistic effects of the combination of CDK12 inhibition and sorafenib.


We identify CDK12 as critically required for most HCC cell lines. Suppression of CDK12 using short hairpin RNAs (shRNAs) or its inhibition by the covalent small molecule inhibitor THZ531 leads to robust proliferation inhibition. THZ531 preferentially suppresses the expression of DNA repair-related genes and induces strong DNA damage response in HCC cell lines. The combination of THZ531 and sorafenib shows striking synergy by inducing apoptosis or senescence in HCC cells. The synergy between THZ531 and sorafenib may derive from the notion that THZ531 impairs the adaptive responses of HCC cells induced by sorafenib treatment.

More about this publication

  • Volume 69
  • Issue nr. 4
  • Pages 727-736
  • Publication date 01-04-2020

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