Methodological Advancements for Investigating Intra-tumoral Heterogeneity in Breast Cancer at the Bench and Bedside

J Mammary Gland Biol Neoplasia. 2020 Dec;25(4):289-304. doi: 10.1007/s10911-020-09470-3. Epub 2020 Dec 9.


There is a major need to overcome therapeutic resistance and metastasis that eventually arises in many breast cancer patients. Therapy resistant and metastatic tumors are increasingly recognized to possess intra-tumoral heterogeneity (ITH), a diversity of cells within an individual tumor. First hypothesized in the 1970s, the possibility that this complex ITH may endow tumors with adaptability and evolvability to metastasize and evade therapies is now supported by multiple lines of evidence. Our understanding of ITH has been driven by recent methodological advances including next-generation sequencing, computational modeling, lineage tracing, single-cell technologies, and multiplexed in situ approaches. These have been applied across a range of specimens, including patient tumor biopsies, liquid biopsies, cultured cell lines, and mouse models. In this review, we discuss these approaches and how they have deepened our understanding of the mechanistic origins of ITH amongst tumor cells, including stem cell-like differentiation hierarchies and Darwinian evolution, and the functional role for ITH in breast cancer progression. While ITH presents a challenge for combating tumor evolution, in-depth analyses of ITH in clinical biopsies and laboratory models hold promise to elucidate therapeutic strategies that should ultimately improve outcomes for breast cancer patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural