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PLoS One. 2013 Oct 8;8(10):e75365. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0075365. eCollection 2013.

Single-cell analysis reveals early manifestation of cancerous phenotype in pre-malignant esophageal cells.

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Center for Biosignatures Discovery Automation, The Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, United States of America.


Cellular heterogeneity plays a pivotal role in a variety of functional processes in vivo including carcinogenesis. However, our knowledge about cell-to-cell diversity and how differences in individual cells manifest in alterations at the population level remains very limited mainly due to the lack of appropriate tools enabling studies at the single-cell level. We present a study on changes in cellular heterogeneity in the context of pre-malignant progression in response to hypoxic stress. Utilizing pre-malignant progression of Barrett's esophagus (BE) as a disease model system we studied molecular mechanisms underlying the progression from metaplastic to dysplastic (pre-cancerous) stage. We used newly developed methods enabling measurements of cell-to-cell differences in copy numbers of mitochondrial DNA, expression levels of a set of mitochondrial and nuclear genes involved in hypoxia response pathways, and mitochondrial membrane potential. In contrast to bulk cell studies reported earlier, our study shows significant differences between metaplastic and dysplastic BE cells in both average values and single-cell parameter distributions of mtDNA copy numbers, mitochondrial function, and mRNA expression levels of studied genes. Based on single-cell data analysis, we propose that mitochondria may be one of the key factors in pre-malignant progression in BE.

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