Dissecting the Transcriptional and Chromatin Accessibility Heterogeneity of Proliferating Cone Precursors in Human Retinoblastoma Tumors by Single Cell Sequencing-Opening Pathways to New Therapeutic Strategies?

Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2021 May 3;62(6):18. doi: 10.1167/iovs.62.6.18.


Purpose: Retinoblastoma (Rb) is a malignant neoplasm arising during retinal development from mutations in the RB1 gene. Loss or inactivation of both copies of RB1 results in initiation of retinoblastoma tumors; however, additional genetic changes are needed for the continued growth and spread of the tumor. Ex vivo research has shown that in humans, retinoblastoma may initiate from RB1-depleted cone precursors. Notwithstanding, it has not been possible to assess the full spectrum of clonal types within the tumor itself in vivo and the molecular changes occurring at the cells of origin, enabling their malignant conversion. To overcome these challenges, we have performed the first single cell (sc) RNA- and ATAC-Seq analyses of primary tumor tissues, enabling us to dissect the transcriptional and chromatin accessibility heterogeneity of proliferating cone precursors in human Rb tumors.

Methods: Two Rb tumors each characterized by two pathogenic RB1 mutations were dissociated to single cells and subjected to scRNA-Seq and scATAC-Seq using the 10× Genomics platform. In addition, nine human embryonic and fetal retina samples were dissociated to single cells and subjected to scRNA- and ATAC-Seq analyses. The scRNA- and ATAC-Seq data were embedded using Uniform Manifold Approximation and Projection and clustered with Seurat graph-based clustering. Integrated scATAC-Seq analysis of Rb tumors and human embryonic/fetal retina samples was performed to identify Rb cone enriched subclusters. Pseudo time analysis of proliferating cones in the Rb samples was performed with Monocle. Ingenuity Pathway Analysis was used to identify the signaling pathway and upstream regulators in the Rb cone-enriched subclusters.

Results: Our single cell analyses revealed the predominant presence of cone precursors at different stages of the cell cycle in the Rb tumors and among those identified the G2/M subset as the cell type of origin. scATAC-Seq analysis identified two Rb enriched cone subclusters, each characterized by activation of different upstream regulators and signaling pathways, enabling proliferating cone precursors to escape cell cycle arrest and/or apoptosis.

Conclusions: Our study provides evidence of Rb tumor heterogeneity and defines molecular pathways that can be targeted to define new treatment strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Cycle / physiology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Child, Preschool
  • Chromatin / genetics*
  • Chromatin Immunoprecipitation Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Retina / embryology
  • Retinal Cone Photoreceptor Cells / pathology*
  • Retinal Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Retinal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Retinoblastoma / genetics*
  • Retinoblastoma / pathology
  • Retinoblastoma Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Signal Transduction
  • Single-Cell Analysis
  • Stem Cells / pathology*
  • Transcriptional Activation / genetics*
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases / genetics


  • Chromatin
  • RB1 protein, human
  • Retinoblastoma Binding Proteins
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases