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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 May 21;110(21):8567-72. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1218336110. Epub 2013 May 6.

Visualizing cellular interactions with a generalized proximity reporter.

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Department of Chemical and Systems Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.


Interactions among neighboring cells underpin many physiological processes ranging from early development to immune responses. When these interactions do not function properly, numerous pathologies, including infection and cancer, can result. Molecular imaging technologies, especially optical imaging, are uniquely suited to illuminate complex cellular interactions within the context of living tissues in the body. However, no tools yet exist that allow the detection of microscopic events, such as two cells coming into close proximity, on a global, whole-animal scale. We report here a broadly applicable, longitudinal strategy for probing interactions among cells in living subjects. This approach relies on the generation of bioluminescent light when two distinct cell populations come into close proximity, with the intensity of the optical signal correlating with relative cellular location. We demonstrate the ability of this reporter strategy to gauge cell-cell proximity in culture models in vitro and then evaluate this approach for imaging tumor-immune cell interactions using a murine breast cancer model. In these studies, our imaging strategy enabled the facile visualization of features that are otherwise difficult to observe with conventional imaging techniques, including detection of micrometastatic lesions and potential sites of tumor immunosurveillance. This proximity reporter will facilitate probing of numerous types of cell-cell interactions and will stimulate the development of similar techniques to detect rare events and pathological processes in live animals.


bioengineering; bioluminescence imaging; chemical biology; immunology; systems biology

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