Open Access Research article

Variations in Mre11/Rad50/Nbs1 status and DNA damage-induced S-phase arrest in the cell lines of the NCI60 panel

Kristen M Garner and Alan Eastman*

Author Affiliations

Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Dartmouth Medical School, Lebanon, NH 03756, USA

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BMC Cancer 2011, 11:206  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-11-206

Published: 27 May 2011



The Mre11/Rad50/Nbs1 (MRN) complex is a regulator of cell cycle checkpoints and DNA repair. Defects in MRN can lead to defective S-phase arrest when cells are damaged. Such defects may elicit sensitivity to selected drugs providing a chemical synthetic lethal interaction that could be used to target therapy to tumors with these defects. The goal of this study was to identify these defects in the NCI60 panel of cell lines and identify compounds that might elicit selective cytotoxicity.


We screened the NCI60 panel in search of cell lines that express low levels of MRN proteins, or that fail to arrest in S-phase in response to the topisomerase I inhibitor SN38. The NCI COMPARE program was used to discover compounds that preferentially target cells with these phenotypes.


HCT116 cells were initially identified as defective in MRN and S phase arrest. Transfection with Mre11 also elevated Rad50 and Nbs1, and rescued the defective S-phase arrest. Cells of the NCI60 panel exhibited a large range of protein expression but a strong correlation existed between Mre11, Rad50 and Nbs1 consistent with complex formation determining protein stability. Mre11 mRNA correlated best with protein level suggesting it was the primary determinant of the overall level of the complex. Three other cell lines failed to arrest in response to SN38, two of which also had low MRN. However, other cell lines with low MRN still arrested suggesting low MRN does not predict an inability to arrest. Many compounds, including a family of benzothiazoles, correlated with the failure to arrest in S phase. The activity of benzothiazoles has been attributed to metabolic activation and DNA alkylation, but we note several cell lines in which sensitivity does not correlate with metabolism. We propose that the checkpoint defect imposes an additional mechanism of sensitivity on cells.


We have identified cells with possible defects in the MRN complex and S phase arrest, and a series of compounds that may preferentially target S phase-defective cells. We discuss limitations of the COMPARE program when attempting to identify compounds that selectively inhibit only a few cell lines.