• Open Access

Chemical combination effects predict connectivity in biological systems



Efforts to construct therapeutically useful models of biological systems require large and diverse sets of data on functional connections between their components. Here we show that cellular responses to combinations of chemicals reveal how their biological targets are connected. Simulations of pathways with pairs of inhibitors at varying doses predict distinct response surface shapes that are reproduced in a yeast experiment, with further support from a larger screen using human tumour cells. The response morphology yields detailed connectivity constraints between nearby targets, and synergy profiles across many combinations show relatedness between targets in the whole network. Constraints from chemical combinations complement genetic studies, because they probe different cellular components and can be applied to disease models that are not amenable to mutagenesis. Chemical probes also offer increased flexibility, as they can be continuously dosed, temporally controlled, and readily combined. After extending this initial study to cover a wider range of combination effects and pathway topologies, chemical combinations may be used to refine network models or to identify novel targets. This response surface methodology may even apply to non-biological systems where responses to targeted perturbations can be measured.


Living organisms are built of interacting components, whose function and dysfunction can be described through dynamic network models (Davidson et al, 2002). Systems Biology involves the iterative construction of such models (Ideker et al, 2001), and may eventually improve the understanding of diseases using in silico simulations. Such simulations may eventually permit drugs to be prioritized for clinical trials, reducing potential risks and increasing the likelihood of successful outcomes. Given the complexity of biological systems, constructing realistic models will require large and diverse sets of connectivity data.

Chemical combinations provide a new window into biological connectivity. Information gleaned from targeted combinations, such as paired mutations (Tong et al, 2004), has proven to be especially useful for revealing functional interactions between components. We have been screening chemical combinations for therapeutic synergies (Borisy et al, 2003; Zimmermann et al, 2007), collecting full-dose matrices where combinations are tested in all possible pairings of serially diluted single agent doses (Figure 1). Such screens yield a variety of response surfaces with distinct shapes for combinations that work through different known mechanisms, suggesting that combination effects may contain information on the nature of functional connections between drug targets.

Simulations of biological pathways predict synergistic responses to inhibitors that depend on target connectivity. We explored theoretical predictions by simulating a metabolic pathway with pairs of inhibitors aimed at different targets with varying doses. We found that the shape of each combination response depended on how the inhibitor pair's targets were connected in the pathway (Figure 2). The predicted response shapes were robust to plausible variations in the simulated pathway that did not affect the network topology (e.g., kinetic assumptions, parameter values, and nonlinear response functions), but were very sensitive to topological alterations in the modelled network (e.g., feedback regulation or changing the type of junction at a branch point). These findings suggest that connectivity of the inhibitor targets has a major influence on combination response morphology.

The predicted shapes were experimentally confirmed in yeast combination experiments. The proliferation experiment used drugs focused on the sterol biosynthesis pathway, which is mostly linear between the targets covered in this study, and is known to be regulated by negative feedback (Gardner et al, 2001). The combinations between sterol inhibitors confirmed expectations from our simulations, showing dose-additive responses for pairs targeting the same enzyme and strong synergies across enzymes of the shape predicted in our simulations for linear pathways under negative feedback. Combinations across pathways showed much more variable responses with a trend towards less synergy on average.

Further experimental support was obtained from human cells. A combination screen of 90 annotated drugs in a human tumour cell line (HCT116) proliferation assay produced strong synergies for combinations within pathways and more variable effects between targeted functions. Synergy profiles (sets of all synergy scores involving each drug) also showed a greater degree of similarity for pairs of drugs with related targets. Finally, the most extreme outliers were dominated by inhibitors of kinases that are especially critical for HCT116 proliferation (Awwad et al, 2003), with effects that are consistent across mechanistic replicates, showing that chemical combinations can highlight biologically relevant cellular processes.

This study demonstrates the potential of chemical combinations for exploring functional connectivity in biological systems. This information complements genetic studies by providing more details through variable dosing, by directly targeting single domains of multi-domain proteins, and by probing cell types that are not amenable to mutagenesis. Responses from large chemical combination screens can be used to identify molecular targets through chemical–genetic profiling (Macdonald et al, 2006), or to directly constrain network models by means of a prediction-validation procedure (Ideker et al, 2001). This initial exploration can be extended to cover a wider range of response shapes and network topologies, as well as to combinations of three or more chemical agents. Moreover, this approach may even be applicable to non-biological systems where responses to targeted perturbations can be measured.