Agent-Based Models Help Interpret Patterns of Clinical Drug Resistance by Contextualizing Competition Between Distinct Drug Failure Modes

Scott M. Leighow, Ben Landry, Michael J. Lee, Shelly R. Peyton, Justin R. Pritchard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Introduction: Modern targeted cancer therapies are carefully crafted small molecules. These exquisite technologies exhibit an astonishing diversity of observed failure modes (drug resistance mechanisms) in the clinic. This diversity is surprising because back of the envelope calculations and classic modeling results in evolutionary dynamics suggest that the diversity in the modes of clinical drug resistance should be considerably smaller than what is observed. These same calculations suggest that the outgrowth of strong pre-existing genetic resistance mutations within a tumor should be ubiquitous. Yet, clinically relevant drug resistance occurs in the absence of obvious resistance conferring genetic alterations. Quantitatively, understanding the underlying biological mechanisms of failure mode diversity may improve the next generation of targeted anticancer therapies. It also provides insights into how intratumoral heterogeneity might shape interpatient diversity during clinical relapse. Materials and Methods: We employed spatial agent-based models to explore regimes where spatial constraints enable wild type cells (that encounter beneficial microenvironments) to compete against genetically resistant subclones in the presence of therapy. In order to parameterize a model of microenvironmental resistance, BT20 cells were cultured in the presence and absence of fibroblasts from 16 different tissues. The degree of resistance conferred by cancer associated fibroblasts in the tumor microenvironment was quantified by treating mono- and co-cultures with letrozole and then measuring the death rates. Results and Discussion: Our simulations indicate that, even when a mutation is more drug resistant, its outgrowth can be delayed by abundant, low magnitude microenvironmental resistance across large regions of a tumor that lack genetic resistance. These observations hold for different modes of microenvironmental resistance, including juxtacrine signaling, soluble secreted factors, and remodeled ECM. This result helps to explain the remarkable diversity of resistance mechanisms observed in solid tumors, which subverts the presumption that the failure mode that causes the quantitatively fastest growth in the presence of drug should occur most often in the clinic. Conclusion: Our model results demonstrate that spatial effects can interact with low magnitude of resistance microenvironmental effects to successfully compete against genetic resistance that is orders of magnitude larger. Clinical outcomes of solid tumors are intrinsically connected to their spatial structure, and the tractability of spatial agent-based models like the ones presented here enable us to understand this relationship more completely.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)521-533
Number of pages13
JournalCellular and Molecular Bioengineering
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Modeling and Simulation
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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