Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an aggressive, highly recurrent breast cancer subtype, affecting approximately one-fifth of all breast cancer patients. Subpopulations of treatment-resistant cancer stem cells within the tumors are considered to contribute to disease recurrence. A potential druggable target for such cells is the maternal embryonic leucine-zipper kinase (MELK). MELK expression is upregulated in mammary stem cells and in undifferentiated cancers, where it correlates with poor prognosis and potentially mediates treatment resistance. Several MELK inhibitors have been developed, of which one, OTSSP167, is currently in clinical trials. In order to better understand how MELK and its inhibition influence TNBC, we verified its anti-proliferative and apoptotic effects in claudin-low TNBC cell lines MDA-MB-231 and SUM-159 using MTS assays and/or trypan blue viability assays together with analysis of PARP cleavage. Then, using microarrays, we explored which genes were affected by OTSSP167. We demonstrate that different sets of genes are regulated in MDA-MB-231 and SUM-159, but in both cell lines genes involved in cell cycle, mitosis and protein metabolism and folding were regulated. We identified p53 (TP53) as a potential upstream regulator of the regulated genes. Using western blot we found that OTSSP167 downregulates mutant p53 in all tested TNBC cell lines (MDA-MB-231, SUM-159, and BT-549), but upregulates wild-type p53 in the luminal A subtype MCF-7 cell line. We propose that OTSSP167 might have context-dependent or off-target effects, but that one consistent mechanism of action could involve the destabilization of mutant p53.
Plos , 2017. Vol. 12, no 2, e0172832