Combination therapy is an important part of cancer treatment and is often employed to overcome or prevent drug resistance. Preclinical screening strategies often prioritize synergistic drug combinations; however, studies of antibiotic combinations show that synergistic drug interactions can accelerate the emergence of resistance because resistance to one drug depletes the effect of both. In this study, we aimed to determine whether synergy drives the development of resistance in cancer cell lines using live-cell imaging. Consistent with prior models of tumor evolution, we found that when controlling for activity, drug synergy is associated with increased probability of developing drug resistance. We demonstrate that these observations are an expected consequence of synergy: the fitness benefit of resisting a drug in a combination is greater in synergistic combinations than in nonsynergistic combinations. These data have important implications for preclinical strategies aiming to develop novel combinations of cancer therapies with robust and durable efficacy.


Preclinical strategies to identify combinations for cancer treatment often focus on identifying synergistic combinations. This study shows that in AML cells combinations that rely on synergy can increase the likelihood of developing resistance, suggesting that combination screening strategies may benefit from a more holistic approach rather than focusing on drug synergy.

See related commentary by Bhola and Letai.

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