Discovery of New Targets to Control Metastasis in Pancreatic Cancer by Single-cell Transcriptomics Analysis of Circulating Tumor Cells

Mol Cancer Ther. 2020 Aug;19(8):1751-1760. doi: 10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-19-1166. Epub 2020 Jun 4.


Metastasis development is the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) and yet, few preclinical systems to recapitulate its full spreading process are available. Thus, modeling of tumor progression to metastasis is urgently needed. In this work, we describe the generation of highly metastatic PDAC patient-derived xenograft (PDX) mouse models and subsequent single-cell RNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) of circulating tumor cells (CTC), isolated by human HLA sorting, to identify altered signaling and metabolic pathways, as well as potential therapeutic targets. The mouse models developed liver and lung metastasis with a high reproducibility rate. Isolated CTCs were highly tumorigenic, had metastatic potential, and single-cell RNA-seq showed that their expression profiles clustered separately from those of their matched primary and metastatic tumors and were characterized by low expression of cell-cycle and extracellular matrix-associated genes. CTC transcriptomics identified survivin (BIRC5), a key regulator of mitosis and apoptosis, as one of the highest upregulated genes during metastatic spread. Pharmacologic inhibition of survivin with YM155 or survivin knockdown promoted cell death in organoid models as well as anoikis, suggesting that survivin facilitates cancer cell survival in circulation. Treatment of metastatic PDX models with YM155 alone and in combination with chemotherapy hindered the metastatic development resulting in improved survival. Metastatic PDX mouse model development allowed the identification of survivin as a promising therapeutic target to prevent the metastatic dissemination in PDAC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics*
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / blood
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / genetics
  • Carcinoma, Pancreatic Ductal / pathology
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / blood
  • Liver Neoplasms / genetics
  • Liver Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Lung Neoplasms / blood
  • Lung Neoplasms / genetics
  • Lung Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred NOD
  • Mice, SCID
  • Neoplastic Cells, Circulating / pathology*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / blood
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / genetics
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Single-Cell Analysis / methods*
  • Transcriptome*
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Biomarkers, Tumor