Understanding the regulatory programs enabling cancer stem cells (CSCs) to self-renew and drive tumorigenicity could identify new treatments. Through comparative chromatin-state and gene expression analyses in ovarian CSCs versus non-CSCs, we identified FOXK2 as a highly expressed stemness-specific transcription factor in ovarian cancer. Its genetic depletion diminished stemness features and reduced tumor initiation capacity. Our mechanistic studies highlight that FOXK2 directly regulated IRE1α (encoded by ERN1) expression, a key sensor for the unfolded protein response (UPR). Chromatin immunoprecipitation and sequencing revealed that FOXK2 bound to an intronic regulatory element of ERN1. Blocking FOXK2 from binding to this enhancer by using a catalytically inactive CRISPR/Cas9 (dCas9) diminished IRE1α transcription. At the molecular level, FOXK2-driven upregulation of IRE1α led to alternative XBP1 splicing and activation of stemness pathways, while genetic or pharmacological blockade of this sensor of the UPR inhibited ovarian CSCs. Collectively, these data establish what we believe is a new function for FOXK2 as a key transcriptional regulator of CSCs and a mediator of the UPR, providing insight into potentially targetable new pathways in CSCs.


Yaqi Zhang, Yinu Wang, Guangyuan Zhao, Edward J. Tanner, Mazhar Adli, Daniela Matei


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