Triptolide targets super-enhancer networks in pancreatic cancer cells and cancer-associated fibroblasts

Pawan Noel, Shaimaa Hussein, Serina Ng, Corina E. Antal, Wei Lin, Emily Rodela, Priscilla Delgado, Sanna Naveed, Michael Downes, Yin Lin, Ronald M. Evans, Daniel D. Von Hoff, Haiyong Han
The tumor microenvironment in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is highly heterogeneous, fibrotic, and hypovascular, marked by extensive desmoplasia and maintained by the tumor cells, cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) and other stromal cells. There is an urgent need to identify and develop treatment strategies that not only target the tumor cells but can also modulate the stromal cells. A growing number of studies implicate the role of regulatory DNA elements called super-enhancers (SE) in maintaining cell-type-specific gene expression networks in both normal and cancer cells. Using chromatin activation marks, we first mapped SE networks in pancreatic CAFs and epithelial tumor cells and found them to have distinct SE profiles. Next, we explored the role of triptolide (TPL), a natural compound with antitumor activity, in the context of modulating cell-type-specific SE signatures in PDAC. We found that TPL, cytotoxic to both pancreatic tumor cells and CAFs, disrupted SEs in a manner that resulted in the downregulation of SE-associated genes (e.g., BRD4, MYC, RNA Pol II, and Collagen 1) in both cell types at mRNA and protein levels. Our observations suggest that TPL acts as a SE interactive agent and may elicit its antitumor activity through SE disruption to re-program cellular cross talk and signaling in PDAC. Based on our findings, epigenetic reprogramming of transcriptional regulation using SE modulating compounds such as TPL may provide means for effective treatment options for pancreatic cancer patients.

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