Transition Therapy: Tackling the Ecology of Tumor Phenotypic Plasticity

Guim Aguadé-Gorgorió, Stuart Kauffman & Ricard Solé 

Bulletin of Mathematical Biology volume 84, Article number: 24 (2022)

Phenotypic switching in cancer cells has been found to be present across tumor types. Recent studies on Glioblastoma report a remarkably common architecture of four well-defined phenotypes coexisting within high levels of intra-tumor genetic heterogeneity. Similar dynamics have been shown to occur in breast cancer and melanoma and are likely to be found across cancer types. Given the adaptive potential of phenotypic switching (PHS) strategies, understanding how it drives tumor evolution and therapy resistance is a major priority. Here we present a mathematical framework uncovering the ecological dynamics behind PHS. The model is able to reproduce experimental results, and mathematical conditions for cancer progression reveal PHS-specific features of tumors with direct consequences on therapy resistance. In particular, our model reveals a threshold for the resistant-to-sensitive phenotype transition rate, below which any cytotoxic or switch-inhibition therapy is likely to fail. The model is able to capture therapeutic success thresholds for cancers where nonlinear growth dynamics or larger PHS architectures are in place, such as glioblastoma or melanoma. By doing so, the model presents a novel set of conditions for the success of combination therapies able to target replication and phenotypic transitions at once. Following our results, we discuss transition therapy as a novel scheme to target not only combined cytotoxicity but also the rates of phenotypic switching.

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