Combining cell-cycle checkpoint kinase inhibitors with the DNA-damaging chemotherapeutic agent gemcitabine offers clinical appeal, with a mechanistic rationale based chiefly on abrogation of gemcitabine-induced G2-M checkpoint activation. However, evidence supporting this mechanistic rationale from chemosensitization studies has not been consistent. Here we report a systematic definition of how pancreatic cancer cells harboring mutant p53 respond to this combination therapy, by combining mathematical models with large-scale quantitative biologic analyses of single cells and cell populations. Notably, we uncovered a dynamic range of mechanistic effects at different ratios of gemcitabine and CHK1 inhibitors. Remarkably, effective synergy was attained even where cells exhibited an apparently functional G2-M surveillance mechanism, as exemplified by a lack of both overt premature CDK1 activation and S-phase mitotic entry. Consistent with these findings, S-G2 duration was extended in treated cells, leading to a definable set of lineage-dependent catastrophic fates. At synergistic drug concentrations, global replication stress was a distinct indicator of chemosensitization as characterized molecularly by an accumulation of S-phase cells with high levels of hyperphosphorylated RPA-loaded single-stranded DNA. In a fraction of these cells, persistent genomic damage was observed, including chromosomal fragmentation with a loss of centromeric regions that prevented proper kinetochore-microtubule attachment. Together, our results suggested a "foot-in-the-door" mechanism for drug synergy where cells were destroyed not by frank G2-M phase abrogation but rather by initiating a cumulative genotoxicity that deregulated DNA synthesis.
©2015 American Association for Cancer Research.