Scientists uncover novel strategy to target common type of cancer

March 26, 2019

Researchers have identified a protein critical for the survival of a particular type of tumor cell, according to a study published today in eLife.

The findings, originally posted on bioRxiv, suggest that targeting a protein called Werner syndrome helicase (WRN) could represent a novel opportunity for treating a subgroup of cancer patients with microsatellite instability-high (MSI-H) tumors.

MSI is a clinically defined characteristic of cancer cells that harbor defects in DNA mismatch repair (MMR), the system for fixing errors that can occur during DNA replication. Defective MMR and MSI-H is observed in approximately 4% of all cases of human cancer, with particularly high prevalence in colorectal, endometrial and gastric cancers.

Treatment for MSI-H tumors has shifted recently with the approval of the immunotherapies pembrolizumab, nivolumab and ipilimumab. But while these drugs often lead to long-lasting positive responses in MSI-H cancer patients, eventual resistance to immunotherapy means there is still a need for more effective treatments.

"Targeted cancer therapy is based on exploiting the biological systems that tumor cells, but not healthy tissues, rely on for survival," says senior author Simon Wöhrle, Principal Scientist at Boehringer Ingelheim Regional Center Vienna (RCV), Austria. "Before we can develop new treatments against MSI-H cancer cells, we first need to understand what it is that helps them to survive and thrive."

The team used MSI-H cancer-cell profiling and recent functional screening data of cell lines to help answer this question. They demonstrated that removing the function of WRN from MSI-H cells prevented them from working properly and caused defects in cell division. "In particular, we saw that WRN-depleted MSI-H cancer cell lines displayed chromosome breaks and genome instability, highlighting WRN as a novel vulnerability of MSI-H cells," explains co-senior author Mark Petronczki, Director Cancer Cell Signaling at Boehringer Ingelheim RCV.

As WRN loss is known to cause Werner syndrome, a premature aging disease associated with an increased lifetime risk of developing tumors, it has previously been suggested that the protein plays a key role in suppressing tumors. However, in contrast to this idea, the current results show that WRN possesses a striking pro-survival function for specific cancer cells.

"We've shown the power of combining deep functional genomic screen data with tumor cell-line profiling to identify new targets in oncology," concludes co-senior author Mark Pearson, Vice President at Boehringer Ingelheim RCV. "Our results indicate that pharmacological inhibition of WRN function might serve as a novel targeted therapeutic strategy in MSI-H cancer to help meet demand for more effective drugs."

The paper 'Werner syndrome helicase is a selective vulnerability of microsatellite instability-high tumor cells' can be freely accessed online at Contents, including text, figures and data, are free to reuse under a CC BY 4.0 license.

This study was originally published as a preprint on bioRxiv, at

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eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science. We publish important research in all areas of the life and biomedical sciences, including Cancer Biology, which is selected and evaluated by working scientists and made freely available online without delay. eLife also invests in innovation through open-source tool development to accelerate research communication and discovery. Our work is guided by the communities we serve. eLife is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. Learn more at

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