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Characterizing heterogeneity in leukemic cells using single-cell gene expression analysis

Saadatpour, A., Guo, G., Orkin, S.H., Yuan, G.C.

Background
A fundamental challenge for cancer therapy is that each tumor contains a highly heterogeneous cell population whose structure and mechanistic underpinnings remain incompletely understood. Recent advances in single-cell gene expression profiling have created new possibilities to characterize this heterogeneity and to dissect the potential intra-cancer cellular hierarchy.

Results
Here, we apply single-cell analysis to systematically characterize the heterogeneity within leukemic cells using the MLL-AF9 driven mouse model of acute myeloid leukemia. We start with fluorescence-activated cell sorting analysis with seven surface markers, and extend by using a multiplexing quantitative polymerase chain reaction approach to assay the transcriptional profile of a panel of 175 carefully selected genes in leukemic cells at the single-cell level. By employing a set of computational tools we find striking heterogeneity within leukemic cells. Mapping to the normal hematopoietic cellular hierarchy identifies two distinct subtypes of leukemic cells; one similar to granulocyte/monocyte progenitors and the other to macrophage and dendritic cells. Further functional experiments suggest that these subtypes differ in proliferation rates and clonal phenotypes. Finally, co-expression network analysis reveals similarities as well as organizational differences between leukemia and normal granulocyte/monocyte progenitor networks.

Conclusions
Overall, our single-cell analysis pinpoints previously uncharacterized heterogeneity within leukemic cells and provides new insights into the molecular signatures of acute myeloid leukemia.

Citation

Saadatpour, A., Guo, G., Orkin, S.H., Yuan, G.C. "Characterizing heterogeneity in leukemic cells using single-cell gene expression analysis" Genome Biology (2014): 525