Multidrug resistance (MDR) is a major cause of tumor treatment failure; therefore, drugs that can avoid this outcome are urgently needed. We studied triptolide which directly kills MDR tumor cells with a high potency and a broad spectrum of cell death. Triptolide did not inhibit P-glycoprotein (P-gp) drug-efflux and reduced P-gp and mdr1 mRNA resulted from transcription inhibition. Transcription factors including c-Myc, SOX-2, OCT-4, and NANOG were not correlated with triptolide-induced cell killing but Rpb1, the largest subunit of RNA polymerase II, was critical in mediating triptolide's inhibition of MDR cells. Triptolide elicited antitumor and anti-MDR activity through a universal mechanism: by activating CDK7 by phosphorylating Thr170 in both parental and MDR cell lines and in SK-OV-3 cells. The CDK7 selective inhibitor BS-181 partially rescued cell killing induced by 72 h treatment of triptolide which may be due to partial rescue of Rpb1 degradation. We suggest that a precise phosphorylation site on Rpb1 (Ser1878) was phosphorylated by CDK7 in response to triptolide. In addition, XPB and p44, two transcription factor TFIIH subunits did not contribute to triptolide-driven Rpb1 degradation and cell killing although XPB was reported to covalently bind to triptolide. Several clinical trials are underway to test triptolide and its analogues for treating cancer and other diseases, so our data may help expand potential clinical uses of triptolide as well as offer a compound that overcomes tumor MDR. Future investigations into the primary molecular target(s) of triptolide responsible for Rpb1 degradation may suggest novel anti-MDR target(s) for therapeutic development.
- Received September 11, 2015.
- Revision received March 16, 2016.
- Accepted March 19, 2016.
- Copyright ©2016, American Association for Cancer Research.