Research Papers:

CRISPR/Cas9 genome-wide screening identifies KEAP1 as a sorafenib, lenvatinib, and regorafenib sensitivity gene in hepatocellular carcinoma

Adi Zheng, Nadja Chevalier, Margot Calderoni, Gilles Dubuis, Olivier Dormond, Panos G. Ziros, Gerasimos P. Sykiotis and Christian Widmann _

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Oncotarget. 2019; 10:7058-7070. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.27361

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Adi Zheng1,*, Nadja Chevalier1,*, Margot Calderoni1,*, Gilles Dubuis1, Olivier Dormond2, Panos G. Ziros3, Gerasimos P. Sykiotis3 and Christian Widmann1

1 Department of Physiology, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland

2 Service of Visceral Surgery, Lausanne University Hospital, Lausanne, Switzerland

3 Service of Endocrinology, Diabetology and Metabolism, Lausanne University Hospital, Lausanne, Switzerland

* These authors contributed equally to this work

Correspondence to:

Christian Widmann,email: [email protected]

Keywords: KEAP1; sorafenib; hepatocellular carcinoma; lenvatinib; Regorafenib

Abbreviations: KEAP1: Kelch-like ECH-associated protein 1; Nrf2: Nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2; GPX2: Glutathione peroxidase 2; TXNRD1: Thioredoxin reductase 1

Received: February 11, 2019     Accepted: November 13, 2019     Published: December 17, 2019


Sorafenib is the first-line drug used for patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). However, acquired sorafenib resistance in cancer patients limits its efficacy. Here, we performed the first genome-wide CRISPR/Cas9-based screening on sorafenib-treated HCC cells to identify essential genes for non-mutational mechanisms related to acquired sorafenib resistance and/or sensitivity in HCC cells. KEAP1 was identified as the top candidate gene by Model-based Analysis of Genome-wide CRISPR/Cas9 Knockout (MAGeCK). KEAP1 disrupted HCC cells were less sensitive than wild-type cells in short- and long-term sorafenib treatments. Compared to wild-type cells, KEAP1-disrupted cells showed lower basal and sorafenib-induced reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels and were more resistant to oxidative stress-induced cell death. The absence of KEAP1 led to increased activity of Nrf2, a key transcription factor controlling antioxidant responses, as further evidenced by increased expression of Nrf2-controlled genes including NQO1, GPX2 and TXNRD1, which were positively associated with chemoresistance. In addition, KEAP1 disruption counteracted the reduction of cell viability and the elevation of ROS caused by lenvatinib, a drug that recently showed clinical efficacy as a first-line treatment for unresectable HCC. Finally, Keap1 disruption also increased the resistance of cells to regorafenib, a recently approved drug to treat HCC as a second line therapy. Taken together, our data indicate that deregulation of the KEAP1/Nrf2 pathway following KEAP1 inactivation contributes to sorafenib, lenvatinib, and regorafenib resistance in human HCC cells through up-regulation of Nrf2 downstream genes and decreased ROS levels.

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