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We resolved a mechanism connecting tumor epigenetic plasticity with non-genetic adaptive resistance to therapy, with MAPK inhibition of BRAF-mutant melanomas providing the model. These cancer cells undergo multiple, reversible drug-induced cell-state transitions, ultimately yielding a drug-resistant mesenchymal-like phenotype. A kinetic series of transcriptome and epigenome data, collected over two months of drug treatment and release, revealed changing levels of thousands of genes and extensive chromatin remodeling. However, a 3-step computational algorithm greatly simplified the interpretation of these changes, and revealed that the whole adaptive process was controlled by a gene module activated within just three days of treatment, with RelA driving chromatin remodeling to establish an epigenetic program encoding long-term phenotype changes. These findings were confirmed across several patient-derived cell lines and in melanoma patients under MAPK inhibitor treatment. Co-targeting BRAF and histone-modifying enzymes arrests adaptive transitions towards drug tolerance in epigenetically plastic melanoma cells and may be exploited therapeutically.

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