Single-cell technologies have immense potential to shed light on molecular and biological processes that drive human diseases. Mass cytometry (or Cytometry by Time Of Flight mass spectrometry, CyTOF) has already been employed in clinical studies to comprehensively survey patients' circulating immune system. As interest in the "bedside" application of mass cytometry is growing, the delineation of relevant methodological issues is called for. This report uses a newly generated dataset to discuss important methodological considerations when mass cytometry is implemented in a clinical study. Specifically, the use of whole blood samples versus peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), design of mass-tagged antibody panels, technical and analytical implications of sample barcoding, and application of traditional and unsupervised approaches to analyze high-dimensional mass cytometry datasets are discussed. A mass cytometry assay was implemented in a cross-sectional study of 19 women with a history of term or preterm birth to determine whether immune traits in peripheral blood differentiate the two groups in the absence of pregnancy. Twenty-seven phenotypic and 11 intracellular markers were simultaneously analyzed in whole blood samples stimulated with lipopolysaccharide (LPS at 0, 0.1, 1, 10, and 100 ng mL(-1)) to examine dose-dependent signaling responses within the toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) pathway. Complementary analyses, grounded in traditional or unsupervised gating strategies of immune cell subsets, indicated that the prpS6 and pMAPKAPK2 responses in classical monocytes are accentuated in women with a history of preterm birth (FDR<1%). The results suggest that women predisposed to preterm birth may be prone to mount an exacerbated TLR4 response during the course of pregnancy. This important hypothesis-generating finding points to the power of single-cell mass cytometry to detect biologically important differences in a relatively small patient cohort.
Keywords: CyTOF; TLR4; clinical applications; innate immunity; mass cytometry; monocytes; preterm birth; single cell.
© 2015 International Society for Advancement of Cytometry.