Combinatorial interventions inhibit TGFβ-driven epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition and support hybrid cellular phenotypes

Steven Nathaniel Steinway, Jorge Gomez Tejeda Zañudo, Paul J. Michel, David J. Feith, Thomas P. Loughran, Reka Albert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is a developmental process hijacked by cancer cells to leave the primary tumor site, invade surrounding tissue and establish distant metastases. A hallmark of EMT is the loss of E-cadherin expression, and one major signal for the induction of EMT is transforming growth factor beta (TGFβ), which is dysregulated in up to 40% of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). We aim to identify network perturbations that suppress TGFβ-driven EMT, with the goal of suppressing invasive properties of cancer cells. We use a systems-level Boolean dynamic model of EMT to systematically screen individual and combination perturbations (inhibition or constitutive activation of up to four nodes). We use a recently developed network control approach to understand the mechanism through which the combinatorial interventions suppress EMT. We test the results of our in silico analysis using siRNA. Our model predicts that targeting key elements of feedback loops in combination with the SMAD complex is more effective than suppressing the SMAD complex alone. We demonstrate experimentally that expression of a majority of these elements is enriched in mesenchymal relative to epithelial phenotype HCC cell lines. An siRNA screen of the predicted combinations confirms that many targeting strategies suppress TGFβ-driven EMT measured by E-cadherin expression and cell migration. Our analysis reveals that some perturbations give rise to hybrid states intermediate to the epithelial and mesenchymal states. Our results indicate that EMT is driven by an interconnected signaling network and many apparently successful single interventions may lead to steady states that are in-between epithelial and mesenchymal states. As these putative hybrid or partial EMT states may retain invasive properties, our results suggest that combinatorial therapies are necessary to fully suppress invasive properties of tumor cells.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number15014
JournalNPJ systems biology and applications
StatePublished - Nov 28 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Modeling and Simulation
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • Drug Discovery
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Applied Mathematics


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