Algorithmic guided screening of drug combinations of arbitrary size for activity against cancer cells

Ralph G. Zinner, Brittany L. Barrett, Elmira Popova, Paul Damien, Andrei Y. Volgin, Juri G. Gelovani, Reuben Lotan, Hai T. Tran, Claudio Pisano, Gordon B. Mills, Li Mao, Waun K. Hong, Scott M. Lippman, John H. Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


The standard treatment for most advanced cancers is multidrug therapy. Unfortunately, combinations in the clinic often do not perform as predicted. Therefore, to complement identifying rational drug combinations based on biological assumptions, we hypothesized that a functional screen of drug combinations, without limits on combination sizes, will aid the identification of effective drug cocktails. Given the myriad possible cocktails and inspired by examples of search algorithms in diverse fields outside of medicine, we developed a novel, efficient search strategy called Medicinal Algorithmic Combinatorial Screen (MACS). Such algorithms work by enriching for the fitness of cocktails, as defined by specific attributes through successive generations. Because assessment of synergy was not feasible, we developed a novel alternative fitness function based on the level of inhibition and the number of drugs. Using a WST-1 assay on the A549 cell line, through MACS, we screened 72 combinations of arbitrary size formed from a 19-drug pool across four generations. Fenretinide, suberoylanilide hydroxamic acid, and bortezomib (FSB) was the fittest. FSB performed up to 4.18 SD above the mean of a random set of cocktails or "too well" to have been found by chance, supporting the utility of the MACS strategy. Validation studies showed FSB was inhibitory in all 7 other NSCLC cell lines tested. It was also synergistic in A549, the one cell line in which this was evaluated. These results suggest that when guided by MACS, screening larger drug combinations may be feasible as a first step in combination drug discovery in a relatively small number of experiments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)521-532
Number of pages12
JournalMolecular cancer therapeutics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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