Epithelial-mesenchymal heterogeneity, wherein cells within the same tumor can exhibit an epithelial, a mesenchymal, or one or more hybrid epithelial-mesenchymal phenotype(s), has been observed across cancer types and implicated in metastatic aggressiveness. Here, we have used computational modeling to show that this heterogeneity can emerge from the noise in the partitioning of RNAs and proteins among the daughter cells during cancer cell division. Our model captures the population-level behavior of murine prostate cancer cells, the hysteresis in the dynamics of epithelial-mesenchymal plasticity, and how hybrid phenotype-promoting factors alter the phenotypic composition of a population. We further used the model to describe the implications of heterogeneity for therapeutics. By linking the dynamics of an intracellular regulatory circuit to the phenotypic composition of a population, the study contributes towards understanding how non-genetic heterogeneity can be generated and propagated from a small, homogeneous population, and towards therapeutic targeting of cancer cell heterogeneity.
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