Cyclin-dependent kinase 7 (CDK7) plays a critical role in the general regulation of RNA polymerase II-mediated transcription. However, the absence of selective CDK7 inhibitors has hindered the ability to investigate the consequences of acute and prolonged inhibition of CDK7 under normal and pathological conditions. Here we present the discovery and characterization of the first covalent CDK7 inhibitor, CDK7-IN-1, that has the unprecedented ability to target a unique cysteine residue located outside of the canonical kinase domain, providing an unanticipated means of achieving selectivity for CDK7 amongst the 20 known CDKs. Cancer cell line profiling indicates that a subset of cancer cell lines, including T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), exhibit 100-fold greater sensitivity to CDK7-IN-1 over other tumor and normal cell lines. Genome-wide expression analysis in Jurkat T-ALL indicates that CDK7-IN-1 disproportionally affects RUNX1 as well as other components of the TAL1 transcriptional network and its targets, downregulating key regulators of transcription and apoptosis critical for the T-ALL state. These oncogenes are encoded by short-lived mRNA transcripts, are associated with super-enhancers, and exhibit a strong dependency on continuous transcription for sustained expression. Therefore, pharmacological modulation of CDK7 kinase activity may define a method for the identification and treatment of tumor types exhibiting extreme dependencies on transcription for maintenance of the oncogenic state.
Jurkat, MM1S, Loucy, and HeLa (WT and Dox-inducible CDK7 mutant) cells were treated with various drugs including a covalent inhibitor of CDK7 (CDK7-IN-1), a reversible inhibitor of CDK7 (CDK7-IN-1), Flavopiridol, Actinomycin D, and DMSO controls. Replicates are annotated.