The Maternal Embryonic Leucine Zipper Kinase (MELK) has been reported to be a genetic dependency in several cancer types. MELK RNAi and small-molecule inhibitors of MELK block the proliferation of various cancer cell lines, and MELK knockdown has been described as particularly effective against the highly-aggressive basal/triple-negative subtype of breast cancer. Based on these preclinical results, the MELK inhibitor OTS167 is currently being tested as a novel chemotherapy agent in several clinical trials. Here, we report that mutagenizing MELK with CRISPR/Cas9 has no effect on the fitness of basal breast cancer cell lines or cell lines from six other cancer types. Cells that harbor null mutations in MELK exhibit wild-type doubling times, cytokinesis, and anchorage-independent growth. Furthermore, MELK-knockout lines remain sensitive to OTS167, suggesting that this drug blocks cell division through an off-target mechanism. In total, our results undermine the rationale for a series of current clinical trials and provide an experimental approach for the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in preclinical target validation that can be broadly applied.
Like a person who is dependent on coffee to be productive, cancer cells are dependent on the products of certain genes in order to dominate their environment and grow. Cancer cells will stop growing and die when the activity of these gene products is blocked. These genes are known as cancer dependencies or “addictions”. As a result, researchers are constantly looking for cancer dependencies and developing drugs to block their activity.
It was previously believed that a gene called MELK was an addiction in certain types of breast cancer. In fact, pharmaceutical companies had developed a drug to block the activity of MELK, and this drug is currently being tested in human patients. However, Lin, Giuliano et al. have now taken a second look at the role of MELK in breast cancer, and have come to a different conclusion.
Using a gene editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9, Lin, Giuliano et al. removed MELK activity from several cancer cell lines. This did not stop cancer cells from multiplying, suggesting that MELK is not actually a cancer addiction.
Additionally, when breast cancer cells that do not produce MELK were exposed to the drug that is supposed to block MELK activity, the drug still stopped cell growth. Since the drug works when MELK is not present in the cell, the drug must be binding to other proteins. This suggests that MELK is not the actual target of the drug.
Lin, Giuliano et al. suggest that, in the future, CRISPR/Cas9 technology could be used to better identify cancer dependencies and drug targets before cancer drugs are given to human patients.