Single-cell RNA-seq enables comprehensive tumour and immune cell profiling in primary breast cancer

Nat Commun. 2017 May 5:8:15081. doi: 10.1038/ncomms15081.


Single-cell transcriptome profiling of tumour tissue isolates allows the characterization of heterogeneous tumour cells along with neighbouring stromal and immune cells. Here we adopt this powerful approach to breast cancer and analyse 515 cells from 11 patients. Inferred copy number variations from the single-cell RNA-seq data separate carcinoma cells from non-cancer cells. At a single-cell resolution, carcinoma cells display common signatures within the tumour as well as intratumoral heterogeneity regarding breast cancer subtype and crucial cancer-related pathways. Most of the non-cancer cells are immune cells, with three distinct clusters of T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes and macrophages. T lymphocytes and macrophages both display immunosuppressive characteristics: T cells with a regulatory or an exhausted phenotype and macrophages with an M2 phenotype. These results illustrate that the breast cancer transcriptome has a wide range of intratumoral heterogeneity, which is shaped by the tumour cells and immune cells in the surrounding microenvironment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism*
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Ductal, Breast / pathology
  • DNA Copy Number Variations
  • Exome Sequencing
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Humans
  • Lymph Nodes / metabolism
  • Lymph Nodes / pathology
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / metabolism*
  • Macrophages / metabolism*
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / metabolism
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism
  • Receptors, Progesterone / metabolism
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA / methods
  • Single-Cell Analysis / methods
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism*
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Tumor Microenvironment / genetics
  • Tumor Microenvironment / immunology


  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • Receptors, Progesterone
  • ERBB2 protein, human
  • Receptor, ErbB-2