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The function of critical developmental regulators can be subverted by cancer cells to control expression of oncogenic transcriptional programs. These "master transcription factors" (MTFs) are often essential for cancer cell survival and represent vulnerabilities that can be exploited therapeutically. The current approaches to identify candidate MTFs examine super-enhancer associated transcription factor-encoding genes with high connectivity in network models. This relies on chromatin immunoprecipitation-sequencing (ChIP-seq) data, which is technically challenging to obtain from primary tumors, and is currently unavailable for many cancer types and clinically relevant subtypes. In contrast, gene expression data are more widely available, especially for rare tumors and subtypes where MTFs have yet to be discovered. We have developed a predictive algorithm called CaCTS (Cancer Core Transcription factor Specificity) to identify candidate MTFs using pan-cancer RNA-sequencing data from The Cancer Genome Atlas. The algorithm identified 273 candidate MTFs across 34 tumor types and recovered known tumor MTFs. We also made novel predictions, including for cancer types and subtypes for which MTFs have not yet been characterized. Clustering based on MTF predictions reproduced anatomic groupings of tumors that share 1-2 lineage-specific candidates, but also dictated functional groupings, such as a squamous group that comprised five tumor subtypes sharing 3 common MTFs. PAX8, SOX17, and MECOM were candidate factors in high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC), an aggressive tumor type where the core regulatory circuit is currently uncharacterized. PAX8, SOX17, and MECOM are required for cell viability and lie proximal to super-enhancers in HGSOC cells. ChIP-seq revealed that these factors co-occupy HGSOC regulatory elements globally and co-bind at critical gene loci including MUC16 (CA-125). Addiction to these factors was confirmed in studies using THZ1 to inhibit transcription in HGSOC cells, suggesting early down-regulation of these genes may be responsible for cytotoxic effects of THZ1 on HGSOC models. Identification of MTFs across 34 tumor types and 140 subtypes, especially for those with limited understanding of transcriptional drivers paves the way to therapeutic targeting of MTFs in a broad spectrum of cancers.

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