Melding a New 3-Dimensional Agarose Colony Assay with the Emax Model to Determine the Effects of Drug Combinations on Cancer Cells

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The goal of our study was two-fold: (i) develop a robust 3D colony assay methodology to interrogate drug combinations using GelCount™ and (ii) to develop 2-drug combinations that might be useful in the clinic for the treatment of high-grade gliomas. We used three glioma cell lines (U251MG, SNB19, and LNZ308) and two adenocarcinoma cell lines (MiaPaCa and SW480) grown as colonies in a two-tiered agarose cultures. We evaluated two-drug combinations of difluoromethylornithine (DFMO), carboplatin, vorinostat (SAHA), and docetaxel. To analyze for antitumor efficacy we used GelCount™ to measure the area under the curve for tumor colony volumes (μm2 x OD) in each plate. The non-linear dose-response Emax model and the interaction index based on the Loewe additivity are applied to calculate two-drug synergy, additive, and antagonistic interactions.

For glioblastoma cell lines, (i) carboplatin followed by DFMO was synergistic or additive in 2/3 cell lines, (ii) carboplatin before SAHA was synergistic in 1 cell line, (iii) carboplatin before docetaxel was synergistic in 2/3 cell lines and partially additive in the third, (iv) SAHA before docetaxel was synergistic in 1/3 cell lines, (v) docetaxel before DFMO was additive or partially active in 3/3 cell lines, and (vi) DFMO plus SAHA was inactive regardless of order. In the MiaPaCA cell line, synergy occurred when DFMO followed carboplatin and, at short exposure times, when SAHA was combined with carboplatin (regardless of order). In the SW480 cell line synergy occurred only in short exposures for carboplatin followed by docetaxel; additive and mixed partial effects were also seen with DFMO plus carboplatin or docetaxel (regardless of order), carboplatin before DFMO, carboplatin before SAHA, and docetaxel before carboplatin.

In conclusion, by applying the Gelcount™ automated counting and sizing of colonies and the use of Emax and Loewe models to define drug interactions, we can reliably define drug combination efficacy as a function of log dose and duration of drug exposure.

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