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Measurement and models accounting for cell death capture hidden variation in compound response

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Cancer cell sensitivity or resistance is almost universally quantified through a direct or surrogate measure of cell number. However, compound responses can occur through many distinct phenotypic outcomes including changes in cell growth, apoptosis, and non-apoptotic cell death. These outcomes have distinct effects on the tumor microenvironment, immune responses, and resistance mechanisms. Here, we show that quantifying cell viability alone is insufficient to distinguish between these compound responses. Using an alternative assay and drug response analysis amenable to high-throughput measurement, we find that compounds with identical viability outcomes can have very different effects on cell growth and death. Moreover, compound pairs with additive cell growth and death effects can appear synergistic when only assessed by viability. Overall, these results demonstrate an approach to incorporating measurements of cell death when characterizing a pharmacologic response.

Summary Points

Measurements of solely live cell numbers mask important differences in compound effects. Additive effects on growth and death rates can appear synergistic when analyzed solely via live cell number. Automated imaging can provide reasonable throughput to analyze cell response in terms of cell growth and death, and endpoint analysis is similarly informative.

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