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Tirier, S.M., Park, J., Preußer, F., ..., Conrad, C.: Pheno-seq – linking visual features and gene expression in 3D cell culture systems. Sci Rep 9, 12367 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-48771-4


Patient-derived 3D cell culture systems are currently advancing cancer research since they potentiate the molecular analysis of tissue-like properties and drug response under well-defined conditions. However, our understanding of the relationship between the heterogeneity of morphological phenotypes and the underlying transcriptome is still limited. To address this issue, we here introduce “pheno-seq” to directly link visual features of 3D cell culture systems with profiling their transcriptome. As prototypic applications breast and colorectal cancer (CRC) spheroids were analyzed by pheno-seq. We identified characteristic gene expression signatures of epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition that are associated with invasive growth behavior of clonal breast cancer spheroids. Furthermore, we linked long-term proliferative capacity in a patient-derived model of CRC to a lowly abundant PROX1-positive cancer stem cell subtype. We anticipate that the ability to integrate transcriptome analysis and morphological patho-phenotypes of cancer cells will provide novel insight on the molecular origins of intratumor heterogeneity.