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Temporal optimization of radiation therapy to heterogeneous tumour populations and cancer stem cells


External beam radiation therapy is a key part of modern cancer treatments which uses high doses of radiation to destroy tumour cells. Despite its widespread usage and extensive study in theoretical, experimental, and clinical works, many questions still remain about how best to administer it. Many mathematical studies have examined optimal scheduling of radiotherapy, and most come to similar conclusions. Importantly though, these studies generally assume intratumoral homogeneity. But in recent years, it has become clear that tumours are not homogeneous masses of cancerous cells, but wildly heterogeneous masses with various subpopulations which grow and respond to treatment differently. One subpopulation of particular importance is cancer stem cells (CSCs) which are known to exhibit higher radioresistence compared with non-CSCs. Knowledge of these differences between cell types could theoretically lead to changes in optimal treatment scheduling. Only a few studies have examined this question, and interestingly, they arrive at apparent conflicting results. However, an understanding of their assumptions reveals a key difference which leads to their differing conclusions. In this paper, we generalize the problem of temporal optimization of dose distribution of radiation therapy to a two cell type model. We do so by creating a mathematical model and a numerical optimization algorithm to find the distribution of dose which leads to optimal cell kill. We then create a data set of optimization solutions and use data analysis tools to learn the relationships between model parameters and the qualitative behaviour of optimization results. Analysis of the model and discussion of biological importance are provided throughout. We find that the key factor in predicting the behaviour of the optimal distribution of radiation is the ratio between the radiosensitivities of the present cell types. These results can provide guidance for treatment in cases where clinicians have knowledge of tumour heterogeneity and of the abundance of CSCs.

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Funding was provided by Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Cameron Meaney.

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Meaney, C., Kohandel, M. & Novruzi, A. Temporal optimization of radiation therapy to heterogeneous tumour populations and cancer stem cells. J. Math. Biol. 85, 51 (2022).

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  • Mathematical oncology
  • Cancer heterogeneity
  • Radiation therapy
  • Applied mathematics
  • Optimization

Mathematics Subject Classification

  • 92-08