Prediction of ultra-high-order antibiotic combinations based on pairwise interactions

PLoS Comput Biol. 2019 Jan 30;15(1):e1006774. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006774. eCollection 2019 Jan.


Drug combinations are a promising approach to achieve high efficacy at low doses and to overcome resistance. Drug combinations are especially useful when drugs cannot achieve effectiveness at tolerable doses, as occurs in cancer and tuberculosis (TB). However, discovery of effective drug combinations faces the challenge of combinatorial explosion, in which the number of possible combinations increases exponentially with the number of drugs and doses. A recent advance, called the dose model, uses a mathematical formula to overcome combinatorial explosion by reducing the problem to a feasible quadratic one: using data on drug pairs at a few doses, the dose model accurately predicts the effect of combinations of three and four drugs at all doses. The dose model has not yet been tested on higher-order combinations beyond four drugs. To address this, we measured the effect of combinations of up to ten antibiotics on E. coli growth, and of up to five tuberculosis (TB) drugs on the growth of M. tuberculosis. We find that the dose model accurately predicts the effect of these higher-order combinations, including cases of strong synergy and antagonism. This study supports the view that the interactions between drug pairs carries key information that largely determines higher-order interactions. Therefore, systematic study of pairwise drug interactions is a compelling strategy to prioritize drug regimens in high-dimensional spaces.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / administration & dosage
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Computational Biology / methods*
  • Drug Combinations*
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects
  • Microbial Sensitivity Tests
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / drug effects


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Drug Combinations