Metastatic breast cancer remains challenging to treat, and most patients ultimately progress on therapy. This acquired drug resistance is largely due to drug-refractory sub-populations (subclones) within heterogeneous tumors. Here, we track the genetic and phenotypic subclonal evolution of four breast cancers through years of treatment to better understand how breast cancers become drug-resistant. Recurrently appearing post-chemotherapy mutations are rare. However, bulk and single-cell RNA sequencing reveal acquisition of malignant phenotypes after treatment, including enhanced mesenchymal and growth factor signaling, which may promote drug resistance, and decreased antigen presentation and TNF-α signaling, which may enable immune system avoidance. Some of these phenotypes pre-exist in pre-treatment subclones that become dominant after chemotherapy, indicating selection for resistance phenotypes. Post-chemotherapy cancer cells are effectively treated with drugs targeting acquired phenotypes. These findings highlight cancer's ability to evolve phenotypically and suggest a phenotype-targeted treatment strategy that adapts to cancer as it evolves.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- General Physics and Astronomy
- General Chemistry
- General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology