Systems biology approaches that combine experimental data and theoretical modelling to understand cellular signalling network dynamics offer a useful platform to investigate the mechanisms of resistance to drug interventions and to identify combination drug treatments. Extending our work on modelling the PI3K/PTEN/AKT signalling network (SN), we analyse the sensitivity of the SN output signal, phospho-AKT, to inhibition of HER2 receptor. We model typical aberrations in this SN identified in cancer development and drug resistance: loss of PTEN activity, PI3K and AKT mutations, HER2 overexpression, and overproduction of GSK3β and CK2 kinases controlling PTEN phosphorylation. We show that HER2 inhibition by the monoclonal antibody pertuzumab increases SN sensitivity, both to external signals and to changes in kinetic parameters of the proteins and their expression levels induced by mutations in the SN. This increase in sensitivity arises from the transition of SN functioning from saturation to non-saturation mode in response to HER2 inhibition. PTEN loss or PIK3CA mutation causes resistance to anti-HER2 inhibitor and leads to the restoration of saturation mode in SN functioning with a consequent decrease in SN sensitivity. We suggest that a drug-induced increase in SN sensitivity to internal perturbations, and specifically mutations, causes SN fragility. In particular, the SN is vulnerable to mutations that compensate for drug action and this may result in a sensitivity-to-resistance transition. The combination of HER2 and PI3K inhibition does not sensitise the SN to internal perturbations (mutations) in the PI3K/PTEN/AKT pathway: this combination treatment provides both synergetic inhibition and may prevent the SN from acquired mutations causing drug resistance. Through combination inhibition treatments, we studied the impact of upstream and downstream interventions to suppress resistance to the HER2 inhibitor in the SN with PTEN loss. Comparison of experimental results of PI3K inhibition in the PTEN upstream pathway with PDK1 inhibition in the PTEN downstream pathway shows that upstream inhibition abrogates resistance to pertuzumab more effectively than downstream inhibition. This difference in inhibition effect arises from the compensatory mechanism of an activation loop induced in the downstream pathway by PTEN loss. We highlight that drug target identification for combination anti-cancer therapy needs to account for the mutation effects on the upstream and downstream pathways.
- Drug combination
- RTK inhibitor
- PI3K/PTEN/AKT signalling network
- Anticancer drug resistance
- Sensitivity analysis