Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Cancer Biology, MD/PhD


MD/PhD Program; RNA Therapeutics Institute

First Thesis Advisor

Wen Xue


Hepatocellular Carcinoma, CRISPR, Senescence, TRRAP, TIP60, P53 Independence


Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is an aggressive subtype of liver cancer with a poor prognosis. Currently, prognosis for HCC patients remains poor as few therapies are available. The clinical need for more effective HCC treatments remains unmet partially because HCC is genetically heterogeneous and HCC driver genes amenable to targeted therapy are largely unknown. Mutations in the TP53 gene are found in ~30% of HCC patients and confer poor prognosis to patients. Identifying genes whose depletion can inhibit HCC growth, and determining the mechanisms involved, will aid the development of targeted therapies for HCC patients. Therefore, the first half of this thesis focuses on identifying genes that are required for cell growth in HCC independent of p53 status.

We performed a kinome-wide CRISPR screen to identify genes required for cell growth in three HCC cell lines: HepG2 (p53 wild-type), Huh7 (p53-mutant) and Hep3B (p53-null) cells. The kinome screen identified 31 genes that were required for cell growth in 3 HCC cell lines independent of TP53 status. Among the 31 genes, 8 genes were highly expressed in HCC compared to normal tissue and increased expression was associated with poor survival in HCC patients. We focused on TRRAP, a co-factor for histone acetyltransferases. TRRAP function has not been previously characterized in HCC. CRISPR/Cas9 mediated depletion of TRRAP reduced cell growth and colony formation in all three cell lines. Moreover, depletion of TRRAP reduced its histone acetyltransferase co-factors KAT2A and KAT5 at the protein level with no change at the mRNA level. I found that depletion of KAT5, but not KAT2A, reduced cell growth. Notably, inhibition of proteasome- and lysosome-mediated degradation failed to rescue protein levels of KAT2A and KAT5 in the absence of TRRAP. Moreover, tumor initiation in an HCC mouse model failed after CRISPR/Cas9 depletion of TRRAP due to clearance via macrophages and HCC cells depleted of TRRAP and KAT5 failed to grow as subcutaneous xenografts in vivo. RNA-seq and bioinformatic analysis of HCC patient samples revealed that TRRAP positively regulates expression of genes that are involved in mitotic progression. In HCC, this subset of genes is clinically relevant as they are overexpressed compared to normal tissue and high expression confers poor survival to patients. I identified TOP2A as one of the mitotic gene targets of the TRRAP/KAT5 complex whose inhibition greatly reduces proliferation of HCC cells.

Given that this was the first time the TRRAP/KAT5 complex has been identified as a therapeutic target in HCC, the second half of this thesis focuses on identifying the mechanism via which depletion of this complex inhibits proliferation of HCC cells. I discovered that depletion of TRRAP, KAT5 and TOP2A reduced proliferation of HCC cells by inducing senescence. Typically, senescence is an irreversible state of cell cycle arrest at G1 that is due to activation of p53/p21 expression, phosphorylation of RB, and DNA damage. Surprisingly, induction of senescence after loss of TRRAP, KAT5 and TOP2A arrested cells during G2/M and senescence was independent of p53, p21, RB and DNA damage.

In summary, this thesis identifies TRRAP as a potential oncogene in HCC. I identified a network of genes regulated by TRRAP and its-cofactor KAT5 that promote mitotic progression. Moreover, I demonstrated that disruption of TRRAP/KAT5 and its downstream target gene TOP2A result in senescence of HCC cells independent of p53 status. Taken together, this work suggests that targeting the TRRAP/KAT5 complex and its network of target genes is a potential therapeutic strategy for HCC patients.



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