Background: Multicellular tumour sphere models have been shown to closely mimic phenotype characteristics of in vivo solid tumours, or to allow in vitro propagation of cancer stem cells (CSCs). CSCs are usually characterized by the expression of specific membrane markers using flow cytometry (FC) after enzymatic dissociation. Consequently, the spatial location of positive cells within spheres is not documented. Confocal microscopy is the best technique for the imaging of thick biological specimens after multi-labelling but suffers from poor antibody penetration. Thus, we describe here a new protocol for in situ confocal imaging of protein expression in intact spheroids.
Methods: Protein expression in whole spheroids (150 mum in diameter) from two human colon cancer cell lines, HT29 and CT320X6, has been investigated with confocal immunostaining, then compared with profiles obtained through paraffin immunohistochemistry (pIHC) and FC. Target antigens, relevant for colon cancer and with different expression patterns, have been studied.
Results: We first demonstrate that our procedure overcomes the well-known problem of antibody penetration in compact structures by performing immunostaining of EpCAM, a membrane protein expressed by all cells within our spheroids. EpCAM expression is detected in all cells, even the deepest ones. Likewise, antibody access is confirmed with CK20 and CD44 immunostaining. Confocal imaging shows that 100% of cells express beta-catenin, mainly present in the plasma membrane with also cytoplasmic and nuclear staining, in agreement with FC and pIHC data. pIHC and confocal imaging show similar CA 19-9 cytoplasmic and membranar expression profile in a cell subpopulation. CA 19-9+ cell count confirms confocal imaging as a highly sensitive method (75%, 62% and 51%, for FC, confocal imaging and pIHC, respectively). Finally, confocal imaging reveals that the weak expression of CD133, a putative colon CSC marker, is restricted to the luminal cell surface of colorectal cancer acini, with CD133+ cellular debris into glandular lumina.
Conclusion: The present protocol enables in situ visualization of protein expression in compact three-dimensional models by whole mount confocal imaging, allowing the accurate localization and quantification of cells expressing specific markers. It should prove useful to study rare events like CSCs within tumour spheres.