The clonogenic assay: robustness of plating efficiency-based analysis is strongly compromised by cellular cooperation

Brix, N., Samaga, D., Hennel, R., Gehr, K., Zitzelsberger, H., and Lauber, K. (2020). Radiation Oncology 15. doi: 10.1186/s13014-020-01697-y


The clonogenic assay is a versatile and frequently used tool to quantify reproductive cell survival in vitro. Current state-of-the-art analysis relies on plating efficiency-based calculations which assume a linear correlation between the number of cells seeded and the number of colonies counted. The present study was designed to test the validity of this assumption and to evaluate the robustness of clonogenic survival results obtained.

A panel of 50 established cancer cell lines was used for comprehensive evaluation of the clonogenic assay procedure and data analysis. We assessed the performance of plating efficiency-based calculations and examined the influence of critical experimental parameters, such as cell density seeded, assay volume, incubation time, as well as the cell line-intrinsic factor of cellular cooperation by auto-/paracrine stimulation. Our findings were integrated into a novel mathematical approach for the analysis of clonogenic survival data.

For various cell lines, clonogenic growth behavior failed to be adequately described by a constant plating efficiency, since the density of cells seeded severely influenced the extent and the dynamics of clonogenic growth. This strongly impaired the robustness of survival calculations obtained by the current state-of-the-art method using plating efficiency-based normalization. A novel mathematical approach utilizing power regression and interpolation of matched colony numbers at different irradiation doses applied to the same dataset substantially reduced the impact of cell density on survival results. Cellular cooperation was observed to be responsible for the non-linear clonogenic growth behavior of a relevant number of cell lines and the impairment of survival calculations. With 28/50 cell lines of different tumor entities showing moderate to high degrees of cellular cooperation, this phenomenon was found to be unexpectedly common.

Our study reveals that plating efficiency-based analysis of clonogenic survival data is profoundly compromised by cellular cooperation resulting in strongly underestimated assay-intrinsic errors in a relevant proportion of established cancer cell lines. This severely questions the use of plating efficiency-based calculations in studies aiming to achieve more than semiquantitative results. The novel approach presented here accounts for the phenomenon of cellular cooperation and allows the extraction of clonogenic survival results with clearly improved robustness.