Targeting tumor phenotypic plasticity and metabolic remodeling in adaptive cross-drug tolerance

Sci Signal. 2019 Aug 20;12(595):eaas8779. doi: 10.1126/scisignal.aas8779.


Metastable phenotypic state transitions in cancer cells can lead to the development of transient adaptive resistance or tolerance to chemotherapy. Here, we report that the acquisition of a phenotype marked by increased abundance of CD44 (CD44Hi) by breast cancer cells as a tolerance response to routinely used cytotoxic drugs, such as taxanes, activated a metabolic switch that conferred tolerance against unrelated standard-of-care chemotherapeutic agents, such as anthracyclines. We characterized the sequence of molecular events that connected the induced CD44Hi phenotype to increased activity of both the glycolytic and oxidative pathways and glucose flux through the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP). When given in a specific order, a combination of taxanes, anthracyclines, and inhibitors of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD), an enzyme involved in glucose metabolism, improved survival in mouse models of breast cancer. The same sequence of the three-drug combination reduced the viability of patient breast tumor samples in an explant system. Our findings highlight a convergence between phenotypic and metabolic state transitions that confers a survival advantage to cancer cells against clinically used drug combinations. Pharmacologically targeting this convergence could overcome cross-drug tolerance and could emerge as a new paradigm in the treatment of cancer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Drug Delivery Systems*
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Glucose / metabolism*
  • Glucosephosphate Dehydrogenase / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Glucosephosphate Dehydrogenase / metabolism
  • Humans
  • MCF-7 Cells
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasm Proteins / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism
  • Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Neoplasms* / metabolism
  • Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Pentose Phosphate Pathway / drug effects*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • Glucosephosphate Dehydrogenase
  • Glucose