High-content microscopy reveals a morphological signature of bortezomib resistance.
Drug resistance is a challenge in anticancer therapy. In many cases, cancers can be resistant to the drug prior to exposure, i.e., possess intrinsic drug resistance. However, we lack target-independent methods to anticipate resistance in cancer cell lines or characterize intrinsic drug resistance without a priori knowledge of its cause. We hypothesized that cell morphology could provide an unbiased readout of drug resistance. To test this hypothesis, we used HCT116 cells, a mismatch repair-deficient cancer cell line, to isolate clones that were resistant or sensitive to bortezomib, a well-characterized proteasome inhibitor and anticancer drug to which many cancer cells possess intrinsic resistance. We then expanded these clones and measured high-dimensional single-cell morphology profiles using Cell Painting, a high-content microscopy assay. Our imaging- and computation-based profiling pipeline identified morphological features that differed between resistant and sensitive cells. We used these features to generate a morphological signature of bortezomib resistance. We then employed this morphological signature to analyze a set of HCT116 clones (five resistant and five sensitive) that had not been included in the signature training dataset, and correctly predicted sensitivity to bortezomib in seven cases, in the absence of drug treatment. This signature predicted bortezomib resistance better than resistance to other drugs targeting the ubiquitin-proteasome system. Our results establish a proof-of-concept framework for the unbiased analysis of drug resistance using high-content microscopy of cancer cells, in the absence of drug treatment.
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