Reseachers discover novel drug targets and metabolic links for various cancers. [NIH]
Reseachers discover novel drug targets and metabolic links for various cancers. [NIH]

NEW ORLEANS—As the 2016 American Association for Cancer Research meeting begins to downshift toward a close, the presentation sessions certainly did not suffer from a lack of enthusiasm from attendees or high-quality research from presenters. Of particular note was a major symposium that discussed next-generation epigenetic therapeutics.

In the past several years, there have been a variety of epigenetic targets exploited by newly developed drug compounds, many of which have already progressed into clinical trials. Often these compounds will target specific classes of epigenetic regulators like acetylases and histone demethylases, for instance, the small-molecule inhibitors of protein interacting bromodomains—implicated in a diverse range of cancers—and methyltransferase inhibitors, such as lysyl demethylases (KDM).

However, for all of their recently achieved success, researchers are continually searching for increasingly rapid methods to validate epigenetic drug targets. Session Chairperson Udo Oppermann, Ph.D., principal investigator at the University of Oxford, stressed that open access research and continued investigator cooperation were key factors for driving rapid development of novel therapeutics in the field. Anecdotally, Dr. Oppermann noted that if biologists were a bit more like the international cooperative teams of physicists that discovered the Higgs boson or gravitational waves, many biological endeavors would advance rather quickly.  

After providing the audience with a brief introduction to the symposium’s topic, Dr. Oppermann described his current research on histone demethylase inhibitors in multiple myeloma and the connection to metabolic pathways. He surmised that tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle-derived metabolites can link cellular metabolism to cancer—impacting epigenetic landscapes. Specifically, the TCA intermediates are inhibitors of KDMs, ultimately controlling epigenetic and metabolic regulation.

Furthermore, Dr. Oppermann’s group was able to show that treatment of myeloma cell lines with the potent and specific histone demethylase inhibitor GSK-J4 was able to reverse the Myc-driven metabolic dependency, forcing a selected amino acid depletion. This deficiency led to the integrated stress response and the activation of proapoptotic genes. This work helps to solidify further the potent nature of GSK-J4 in cancer while simultaneously uncovering the metabolic mechanisms that cancer cells employ to keep their overproliferative phenotypes progressing forward.

Next, Tomasz Cierpicki, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Michigan, described his work on targeting leukemic stem cells with small-molecule inhibitors of the protein regulator of cytokinesis 1 (PRC1). Dr. Cierpicki took the audience through his research design, which was to target BMI1, an oncogene that determines the proliferative capacity and self-renewal potential of normal and leukemic stem cells. BMI1 has been implicated in a variety of tumors and is essential for the Polycomb Repressive Complex 1 (PRC1). Moreover, BMI1 interacts with the RING1B protein to form an active E3 ubiquitin ligase that targets histone H2A, modifying epigenetic regulation mechanisms.

Dr. Cierpicki’s laboratory looked at inhibitors of the RING1B–BMI1 E3 ligase complex as potential therapeutic agents targeting cancer stem cells. Using an array of techniques from fragment screening to medicinal chemistry, the researchers were able to identify potent compounds that bound to RING1B–BMI1 and inhibit its E3 ubiquitin ligase activity with low micromolar affinities. When testing in vitro, the inhibitors revealed robust downregulation of H2A ubiquitination. Dr. Cierpicki and his colleagues found that the RING1–BMI1 inhibitor blocked the self-renewal capacity of the stem cells and induced cellular differentiation—validating RING ligases as a novel epigenetic drug target.

Finishing up the session was William Sellers, M.D., vice president and global head of oncology for the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Dr. Sellers’ research is focused on what genes are necessary for epigenetic regulation of cancer and how they are linked to essential metabolic processes. He and his colleagues accomplished their studies through the use of large-scale shRNA screening across a diverse set of 390 cancer cell lines.

Utilizing deep small hairpin RNA (shRNA) screening libraries, at 20 shRNAs per genome, provided the investigators with highly robust gene-level data, which resulted in the emergence of several distinct classes of cancer-dependent genes. For example, Dr. Sellers’ group found that several known oncogenes fell into the genetic dependence class, whereas other genes were sorted into lineage, paralog, and collateral synthetic lethality dependent classes.

An interesting example from Dr. Sellers’ work was the link his laboratory discovered between polyamine metabolism and salvage and the protein arginine methyltransferase 5 (PRMT5). In particular, the loss of methylthioadenosine phosphorylase (MTAP)—which has been observed in many solid tumors and hematologic malignancies—resulted in the accumulation of S-methyl-5'-thioadenosine (MTA), which specifically inhibited the epigenetic mechanisms of PRMT5. The culmination Dr. Sellers’ analysis led to the finding that PRMT5 is a novel target for therapeutic development in MTAP deleted cancers.     

These three presentations represented some of the excellent, cutting-edge research that is not only looking to develop novel drug therapeutics but also trying to uncover the underlying molecular mechanisms of epigenetic regulation and cancer.