Kinetic Heterogeneity of Cancer Cell Fractional Killing

Cell Rep. 2020 Jul 7;32(1):107845. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2020.107845.


Lethal drugs can induce incomplete cell death in a population of cancer cells, a phenomenon referred to as fractional killing. Here, we show that high-throughput population-level time-lapse imaging can be used to quantify fractional killing in response to hundreds of different drug treatments in parallel. We find that stable intermediate levels of fractional killing are uncommon, with many drug treatments resulting in complete or near-complete eradication of all cells, if given enough time. The kinetics of fractional killing over time vary substantially as a function of drug, drug dose, and genetic background. At the molecular level, the antiapoptotic protein MCL1 is an important determinant of the kinetics of fractional killing in response to MAPK pathway inhibitors but not other lethal stimuli. These studies suggest that fractional killing is governed by diverse lethal stimulus-specific mechanisms.

Keywords: BCL-xL; MAPK; MCL1; MEK1/2; apoptosis; cancer; drug; fractional killing.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis*
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Female
  • High-Throughput Screening Assays
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Male
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase Kinases / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Myeloid Cell Leukemia Sequence 1 Protein / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Time Factors


  • Myeloid Cell Leukemia Sequence 1 Protein
  • Protein Kinase Inhibitors
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase Kinases